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Incarcerated People Work for Aramark Without Pay

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In a lawsuit filed by ACLU for incarcerated people working without pay for Aramark, a corporation that profits from prisons, the California Supreme Court ruled the minimum wage law doesn’t apply.

Alameda County, CAThe California Supreme Court has ruled in the lawsuit Ruelas v. County of Alameda 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 California labor lawsuit was filed by the ACLU on behalf of people incarcerated at the Santa Rita Jail who worked without pay for “private company” Aramark, a $16 billion for-profit corporation that provides food in jails and prisons, and more.

Ruelas v. County of Alameda was filed in 2019 in federal court by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) on behalf of pretrial detainees and current and former Santa Rita inmates against Aramark, Alameda County, and Sheriff Gregory Ahern. According to Law360, the justices said that pretrial detainees who worked in an Alameda County jail preparing food as part of a contract with Aramak Correctional Services didn't have a right to minimum wage and overtime pay because they are covered by penal code section 4019.3. But they are getting paid: The provision authorizes the county to provide inmates a maximum of $2 for eight hours of labor in jail. “A county may not simultaneously comply with penal code section 4019.3, which sets the compensation ceiling at no more than two dollars per eight-hour shift, and at the same time comply with the Labor Code, which sets a minimum wage floor that is far above that," opined Justice Kelli Evans. (The penal code was enacted by the California State Legislature in 1872 and it would seem that some parts of it, e.g., $2 per day, haven’t been amended or revised since.)

Is Aramark paying inmates $2 per day?

In their lawsuit, the detainees referred to the 13th Amendment as it is relevant to whether pretrial or civil detainees have employee wage rights. The 13th Amendment bans slavery, but it makes an exception for work performed as a punishment for crime. In other words, it permits forced labor in prisons and some of those laborers are in pretrial. 

Aramark Lawsuit

Aramark did not pay inmate Bert Davis for his labor. Davis, along with seven other current and former Santa Rita inmates--and on behalf of all Santa Rita inmates who have worked for Aramark and people awaiting immigration proceedings-- filed the class action against Aramark, Alameda County, and Sheriff Gregory. They argued that Aramark receives an economic windfall as a result of the uncompensated labor of prisoners confined in Santa Rita Jail. And they claim that their unpaid kitchen jobs were forced labor, a violation of the Constitution, the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act, and a 1990 California law that requires private companies to pay prisoners fair wages.

Dan Siegel, one lawyer representing the plaintiffs, said that “Santa Rita and therefore the county are stealing the wages that have been earned as a result of the work of the prisoners… [plaintiffs] should have received wages on par with Aramark’s non-incarcerated employees and could be eligible for overtime pay under California’s labor code.” On his website, Siegel said his clients are “simply asking for the basic dignity of a wage for their work,” and he refers to the Mother Jones (January 2020) article, which has clearly done their homework on Aramark.

The following points from Mother Jones:

  • Alameda County argued that if anyone is on the hook for inmates’ unpaid wages, it’s the private businesses that employed them. ‘The whole operation is run by the Aramark corporation,’ says Sgt. Ray Kelly, the sheriff’s office spokesperson. ‘We just kind of facilitate’.
  • Aramark is a huge publicly traded corporation with annual revenue exceeding $16 billion, including through contracts to provide food in jails and prisons across the country. It employs people detained in the Alameda County Jail at a plant that prepares food for the jail and other detention facilities.
  • Since at least 2006, Aramark has held contracts worth more than $94.5 million to feed Alameda County’s inmates. Neither Aramark nor Alameda County paid inmates for their labor.
  •  A national study found that families of incarcerated people spend $1.6 billion on commissary products to supplement inadequate food and hygiene in jails and prisons — and $1.3 billion for phone calls.
  • Among the workers packaging meals for incarcerated people are the pretrial detainees at the Alameda County Jail. Because they are held in jail, Aramark does not pay them a cent, and it claims it doesn’t have to.

In the Amicus Brief dated May 11, 2023, Aramark argues that it would be “absurd” to afford the protections of the Labor Code to incarcerated people and that “it does not need to pay its incarcerated workers a single cent for their labor”.

More About Aramark Food Services

Aramark provides food and other services to schools, hospitals and prisons—it charges prisons for its services. According to the ACLU press release, Aramark was profiting from the labor of the incarcerated workers at the Santa Rita Jail, who were not compensated. The pretrial inmates at Santa Rita worked under the supervision of Aramark employees to prepare and package meals, which were sold to third parties under a $19-million, three-year contract with the county. They received no payment at all for their work, according to their attorney.

In 2019, Aramark was sued by people who were incarcerated at California’s Santa Rita Jail for serving expired and spoiled food, as well as food infested with rodent, insect, and bird droppings.

According to Investigate AFSC, though this case was dismissed on technicalities, rats, cockroaches, and bird droppings continued to be found in Aramark’s food as of November 2020. And according to court documents, plaintiffs allege that:
  • Food that is infested with rodents, insects and bird droppings;
  • Food that is inedible due to excessive cooking and overheating;
  • Food that is inedible due to age, poor storage and spoilage,
  • Food that lacks nutritional value and consists primarily of soy powder, white flour and sugar;
California Review Management has this to say about Aramark:
  • Although the niche market of prison services is not particularly known for its exemplary quality – other large providers routinely overcharge for low quality products – Aramark’s actions cannot be overlooked, particularly in the context of its claim that “enriching and nourishing lives is our mission and responsibility.”
  • Aramark claims to be the second largest provider of food and facilities services in North America. With operations in nineteen countries around the world, the company’s 2020 revenue was $12.8 billion, about 12% of which is from its prison business.
  • Through its subsidiary Aramark Correctional Services, Aramark is the largest provider of food services to U.S. prisons, having 38% of the market share. Aramark has been working in prisons since 1976 and says it is a “corrections dedicated company”. The company reported 400 million prison meals annually and working in more than 500 prisons as of 2018.
And this from Concordia University students, (it has a contract with Aramark):  “They are prison food providers for the most part, they provide poor quality, expensive food.” Many students have ridiculed the food served via social media, such as Instagram posts that display uncooked chicken, moldy bread, bug-infested meals, and unwanted particles in the food, including pieces of plastic and hair. Perhaps those pieces of plastic and hair come from prisoners exasperated with working like slave laborers.


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