Three Oklahoma men have sued a putative nonprofit rehabilitation organization in Oklahoma alleging they’ve been made essentially slave labor for their employer, Simmons Foods, an Arkansas-based poultry giant.
The Center for Investigative Reporting has the details of the lawsuit, which follows earlier reporting by the center referenced here last week on the practice of judges sending drug offenders to work camps where they provide labor for profit-making companies such as Simmons, also a defendant in the federal lawsuit. The earlier reporting detailed allegations similar to those in the suit — working in return only for food and shelter in sometimes punishing conditions, with the rehab agencies profiting, at least through officials’ pay, from the arrangement.
Said an article on the Center’s website:
The investigation zeroed in on Christian Alcoholics & Addicts in Recovery, or CAAIR, an Oklahoma program that puts hundreds of men a year to work slaughtering chickens at processing plants owned by Simmons Foods Inc. The men work for free, under constant threat of prison, on products for big-name brands, including Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen, KFC and Rachael Ray’s Nutrish pet food. The rehab program keeps their wages.
“By defrauding these men and providing virtual slave labor for a private corporation, CAAIR and Simmons are not only violating longstanding labor laws, they are violating basic standards of human decency and the core concepts underpinning our constitutional democracy,” the firm that filed the suit, Smolen, Smolen & Roytman, said in a statement.
The men are seeking more than $5 million. Their complaint alleges violations of state and federal labor laws, which require employers to pay employees at least minimum wage and overtime for their work. The men at CAAIR made nothing. The few who graduated from the one-year program were eligible for a $1,000 gift.
Among the earlier allegations was that workers compensation claims for injuries didn’t produce payments to the injured workers but instead to the rehab organization. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, which also reported on the lawsuit today, quoted a Workers Comp official as saying that allegation would be investigated. It will be interesting to follow. Simmons is a major player in Arkansas politics. Gov. Asa Hutchinson recently proudly announced an expansion of a Simmons facility in Northwest Arkansas, with attendant state-paid incentives to the company. From the investigative reporting:
An Oklahoma drug court sent Arthur Copeland, one of the plaintiffs named in the suit, to CAAIR in 2016. He thought he was going to a rehab program, according to the suit, but instead found himself hanging more than 60 live chickens a minute along an assembly line. Copeland was seriously injured in a chicken plant but was threatened with prison if he stopped working, according to the lawsuit. He eventually relapsed while in the program and was sent to prison.
Brad McGahey, another plaintiff, was ordered to CAAIR in 2010. His hand was crushed in a conveyor belt while working at a chicken plant. McGahey was featured prominently in Reveal’s online narrative and its podcast.
“I’m glad. Hell, I’m broke,” McGahey said of the lawsuit when reached by phone. “Them sorry bastards think they’re untouchable. I don’t want to see them ruin anyone else’s life.”
Brandon Spurgin, also named in Reveal’s story and as a plaintiff in the lawsuit, was injured in 2014 when a metal door at a plant fell on his head, causing spinal damage. CAAIR filed for workers’ compensation on his behalf and pocketed the payments.
“Maybe finally something gets done,” he said of the lawsuit. “If nothing ever happens, people are going to keep getting hurt up there.”
The D-G said Simmons had said it has 120 employees in Northwest Arkansas who are “clients” of the Christian rehabilitation agency. Simmons said it paid an hourly rate for the workers to the agency, which is responsible for compensation. Those workers, the Center for Investigative Reporting said, sometimes also perform labor for operators of the rehab program. The officials call it “community service.”
The Arkansas Workers Comp commission said it would pass findings of allegations of unpaid benefits to the Insurance Department and Attorney General Leslie Rutledge.
While waiting for that to play out — no news release yet from Rutledge on her intention to investigate allegations of mistreatment of drug court defendants — you’d do well to visit the website of the Center for Investigative Reporting.
In addition to the major piece we linked last week, there are related articles. They include one listing other rehab agencies that have provided workers for other companies, including Tyson Foods and George’s, both Arkansas concerns. They have varying methods of paying workers. For example:
Rehab: The People’s Network
Chicken companies: George’s Inc., Tyson
The Missouri program puts defendants to work at chicken plants owned by George’s Inc. and Tyson. They get about 5 percent of their total pay if they complete the program, according to Bryan Boman, a TPN employee.
Boman said the rehab operates like a temp agency for companies with high turnover rates.
“It is work therapy because it shows them the benefit of working for a year,” said Eric Freeman, who used to work for TPN. “There is benefit to hard manual labor.”
UPDATE: A Tyson spokesman responded to its inclusion in the article:
We’re not soliciting job applicants from these programs, however, clients of these organizations may seek work with us just like anyone else. They have to apply and their employment is contingent on passing a drug screen. If hired, they’re paid directly by the company, just like our other employees.
Also, Tyson Foods is not participating in the CAAIR program. One of our plants tried the program about six years ago but only for a few months.
After Fred Barbee broke his ankle while working at a chicken processing plant in Arkansas, he expected time off to heal.
But he wasn’t in a normal workplace. A drug court judge in Tulsa, Oklahoma, had sent Barbee to a drug rehabilitation program called Christian Alcoholics & Addicts in Recovery, or CAAIR. The program makes men work without pay at plants owned by Simmons Foods Inc.
Because Barbee couldn’t work, the rehab kicked him out. It filed a workers’ compensation claim and collected the $7,100 payout. Barbee got none of it.