ACLU Responds to California Supreme Court Ruling on Minimum Wage for Incarcerated Workers

April 22, 2024 7:00 pm

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OAKLAND, Calif. — The California Supreme Court ruled today that the state’s minimum wage law does not apply to people working for private companies while they are held in pretrial detention in California’s jails. The lawsuit, Ruelas v. County of Alameda, was brought by people incarcerated at the Santa Rita Jail in Alameda County who worked without compensation for Aramark, a for-profit corporation that provides food in jails and prisons.

Although the court’s decision means that Alameda County and Aramark are not bound by the state’s minimum wage laws, it makes clear that the California legislature has the ability to pass laws to protect incarcerated workers in county jails. The decision also gives discretion to counties and private companies to choose to compensate incarcerated workers.

“The California Supreme Court recognized the severe economic burdens the people incarcerated in county jails face from an exploitative system,” said Kyle Virgien, senior staff attorney at the ACLU’s National Prison Project. “It’s now up to Alameda County to do the right thing and ensure that when corporations profit from the labor of people incarcerated in the Alameda County Jail, they pay for that labor.”

In a 2022 report about incarcerated workers in federal and state prisons, the ACLU and the Global Human Rights Clinic of the University of Chicago Law School found incarcerated workers produce $2 billion in goods and $9 billion in services to prison systems, yet most are paid nothing or pennies.

The American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project, the ACLU Foundation of Northern California, and the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Southern California filed an amicus brief arguing that the state minimum wage law does apply to this class of incarcerated people.

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