Discrimination OK Against Disabled Prisoner Hired as Labor
A private company that got cheap labor by contracting with the state to hire prisoners cannot be sued for discrimination against a disabled worker, according to a ruling by a federal appeals court.
The prisoner is not an “employee” of the private company, therefore he does not have the protections under the Americans with Disabilities Act, the court said.
The ruling gives an incentive to companies to hire prison labor at below minimum wage without being bound by laws that protect workers, says David Fathi, director of the national prison project of the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington.
William Castle was in Arizona state prison for theft, serving a 10-year sentence. Arizona state law requires that all prisoners do “hard labor” for at least 40 hours per week. The state contracts out its prisoners to work at private companies for cheap.
Castle worked at Eurofresh, a private company described as “America’s largest greenhouse operation” that sells hydroponic tomatoes. Castle picked tomatoes for $2.25 an hour, a job that required him to stand for his entire seven-hour shift and push a 600-pound cart of tomatoes. After about two months on the job, Castle felt “intolerable pain and swelling” in his left ankle, an old injury from an accident while parachuting for the U.S. Army. When he asked if he could take short breaks during his shift to rest his ankle, Eurofresh said he would be fired. He was eventually reassigned to the prison labor program where he made only 50 cents per hour.
He sued Eurofresh and the state for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act by refusing to accommodate his disability.
The appeals court said he did not have standing to sue Eurofresh because he was required to work under state law.
“Castle is not Eurofresh’s employee under the ADA because his labor belongs to the state of Arizona, which put him to work at Eurofresh in order to comply with its statutory obligations,” wrote a three-judge panel for the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Although the court left open Castle’s disability discrimination claim against the state, it will be harder to prove the state liable for damages, Fathi said.
Arizona is likely to argue that it is immune from being sued under the 11th Amendment, sovereign immunity, and even if it can be sued, it did not know about the discrimination because Eurofresh was in control of Castle’s work assignments and conditions of employment.
“It’s much harder to get money damages against the state than against a private employer,” Fathi said. “It is entirely possible that Mr. Castle who was obviously subjected to disability discrimination may be left without a remedy.”
‘Amazing Proliferation’ of Prison Labor
Companies hiring prison labor through contracts with state prison systems is becoming more and more common.
“In recent years, there’s been an amazing proliferation of prison labor” and prisoners now perform a “surprising range of products and services,” including making clothes, recycling electronics and answering phones in call centers, Fathi said.
The prison population has increased by 700 percent since the early 1970s, and America now boasts the highest per capita incarceration in the world.
The court decision is troubling, says Fathi, because it can be extended to take away rights of prisoners working at private companies for “a whole range of protections,” such as whistleblower rights for workers who report wrongdoing on the job, and protection against sex and race discrimination.
Prison workers are already not covered by federal wage and hour laws and are paid much less than minimum wage, he noted.
“There’s a danger that in a country with 2.3 million prisoners, that the [non-prison] labor force will be undercut and create a two-tier labor system,” said Fathi. “The ruling creates an obvious incentive for employers to prefer prison labor. We certainly don’t want that as a society.”