An immigrant detainee has filed a class-action lawsuit against the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Department, saying it pays hundreds of detainees only $1 a day to mop floors, scrub toilets, and perform other janitorial duties at the Boston jail. His lawyers are seeking an estimated $4 million in unpaid wages over the last six years.
Lawyers for Anthony Whyte, a 40-year-old detainee fighting deportation to Jamaica, said he should be paid at least the state minimum wage, $9 an hour, because he is in custody for alleged civil violations and not crimes. He voluntarily works in the jail’s immigration unit.
“We’re concerned that states and private companies have started using immigration detention as a cash cow, based on the backs of this extremely cheap labor,” said Andrew Schmidt, a Portland, Maine, lawyer who is the lead counsel on the case.
A spokesman for Suffolk County Sheriff Steven Tompkins said inmates and immigrant detainees are paid solely based on where they are assigned to work. Detainees and inmates can earn $1 a day working indoors doing laundry or other tasks. Convicts doing work outside of jail, such as on a recent snow-shoveling crew, can earn $3 a day and a reduction on their sentence, said the spokesman. He declined to comment on the lawsuit.
The civil lawsuit, filed Feb. 18 in Suffolk Superior Court, accuses the Sheriff’s Department of misclassifying workers as nonemployees, failing to pay overtime, and other violations of state law. In interviews, the lawyers said the law often allows criminal inmates to be paid less than the minimum wage, but civil immigration detainees should not lose their right to the minimum wage, even if the work is voluntary.
The lawsuit follows similar complaints in other states over federal officials using immigrants as cheap labor while seeking to have them expelled from the United States. In Boston, advocates for immigrants have raised concerns about detainee treatment for years. In 2009, a 49-year-old Dominican detainee at Suffolk died after an infection ravaged his body.
US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which pays the Suffolk sheriff’s office about $100 a day for each immigrant housed at the jail during the deportation process, said the dollar-a-day wage is the going rate for its detainees in most facilities nationwide.
“The Voluntary Work Program, which allows detainees the opportunity to feel productive and contribute to the orderly operation of facilities, was developed in an effort to improve detainee morale and reduce the frequency of disciplinary incidents,” Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman Daniel Modricker said in a statement. He said the work is “completely voluntary,” does not constitute employment, and is done in exchange for “a small stipend.”
Immigration and Customs Enforcement is not named in the lawsuit, and agency officials declined to comment on it.
In Bristol County, where Whyte had been detained in the past, Sheriff Thomas Hodgson said jails have no obligation to pay detainees and he does not.
“They don’t have to do the work,” he said, adding that the detainees are already costing taxpayers to house them. “Why would we want to take taxpayers’ money to pay you even more to do work that somebody’s going to do in there for free?”
However, Patrick Long, a cocounsel on Whyte’s case in Boston, said civil immigration detainees should not be treated the same as criminals.
“Even if anybody in this case had committed a crime, that’s not what they’re there for now,” Long said.
Whyte works 20 to 30 hours a week, his lawyers said. His duties have included handing out food trays at meal times, cleaning bathrooms, and emptying the garbage. Other inmates wash laundry, buff floors, and shovel snow.
Modricker said Whyte is being deported because he is an aggravated felon, although the specifics of his record were unavailable Friday. Whyte disputes that description of his criminal record, and is challenging his deportation in a separate federal lawsuit.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrested Whyte for deportation in February 2012, and he has been detained in Massachusetts and Alabama for more than three years, said Hillary Cheng, another lawyer on his team who discovered Whyte through her prior volunteer work at Suffolk University’s immigration law clinic.
Whyte’s lawyers said he arrived in the United States as a child and received a green card. He has seven children, all US citizens.
“Some people gripe about having to pay child support,” Long said. “He wishes he could pay his. But on $1 a day that’s not something you can do.
Michael Levenson and Andrea Estes contributed to this report. Maria Sacchetti can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.