Employment anti-discrimination laws quite naturally apply to employment and employees. However, we know that the issue of who is an “employee” is not so easy to determine sometimes. Is someone an employee or independent contractor? Is an intern an employee? Is a volunteer? Are the “crowds” who perform micro-services on the Amazon platform?
The issue of prisoner labor is similar. Is an inmate who works for the prison an “employee?” What if she is subcontracted out? Is she entitled to minimum wage? And for our post today — do the anti-discriminaion laws apply to her?
The Iowa Civil Rights Commission determined not so long ago that a prisoner is not “an employee” under Iowa law. However, in a significant employment and inmate rights case, the Iowa Supreme Court overturned this determination and held in 2010 that prisoners have civil rights protections in employment.
Accordingly, a sexual harassment and retaliation by an inmate who earned $4.20 a day as a prison clerk was permitted to continue. She alleged, among other things, that a corrections officer made romantic advances towards her, and threatened to have her transferred to the state prison if she reported him. As a result of her complaint to the Iowa Civil Rights Commission, she spent nine days in solitary confinement and was fired from her position.
The state of Iowa has recently agreed to pay $71,000 to settle the lawsuit, which the Iowa Attorney General said was “a fair resolution of a difficult case.”
This case is interesting because, without further research to confirm this, we are not aware of any situation where an inmate who works for far less than minimum wage is considered an “employee” for any purpose.