A third lawsuit has been filed contesting the arrangement by which drug court defendants are sentenced to work unpaid, with pay going to nonprofit agencies.
The lawsuit was first reported this morning in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, but I’ve gotten a comment from a new defendant named in the lawsuit, a company headed by a state senator.
Past complaints, originally disclosed by an investigative reporting project, have detailed how workers have difficult jobs in the poultry industry and live in poor conditions, essentially slave labor, while the operators of the nonprofits enjoy large salaries. Simmons Foods, which recently announced a major expansion subsidized by state tax benefits in Northwest Arkansas, has been a major user of the workers (more than 100 currently, it has said). Today’s lawsuit added another business that uses the workers, Hendren Plastics.
The plastics firm is headed by state Sen. Jim Hendren and was founded by him and his father, Rep. Kim Hendren. I asked Senator Hendren about the Democrat-Gazette article and he sent this response:
I’ve not seen or received anything about a lawsuit. I am proud of the work Hendren Plastics has done to try to give kids in drug rehab programs a second chance. While they are not employees of our company we pay the program for every hour they work consistent with all state and federal laws just as we do our other employees. We have also hired some to become full time employees upon completion of the program. It has been rewarding to see some of these kids turn their lives around.
Simmons, too, has said it pays a competitive wage to the agency overseeing the worker program and has also seen several workers “graduate” and join the regular workforce.
The latest lawsuit has two plaintiffs but seeks
The main focus of the reporting has been Christian Alcoholics and Addicts in Recovery, based in Jay, Okla. It is now being investigated by Oklahoma. The Arkansas Workers Compensation Commission has also said it will look into a report that benefits paid for on-the-job injuries at a poultry plant went to the Christian rehab agency, not the injured worker.
Plaintiffs in the latest suit, Mark Fochtman, 33, and Shane O’Neal, 32, enrolled in the CAIR program and went to work for Simmons. The D-G article said O’Neal continued to work for Simmons after completing his drug court stint. Fochtman joined the CAIR program in May 2015 and left after six months. His work had been limited by a wrist injury, the suit said. In March 2016, the suit said he joined a similar program operated by Drug and Alcohol Recovery Program in Decatur and worked at the nearby plastics manufacturer for no pay. He filled containers with plastic beads that were used to make flotation platforms.
The lawsuit said the Drug and Alcohol Recovery program doesn’t distribute wages it receives, but provides services and pays its staff with the money. The lawsuit said the program is not a certified treatment center. They are 12-step programs and not required to be licensed, the article said. Attorneys for the plaintiffs were critical, telling the D-G:
“No one in these programs benefit,” said attorney Tim Steadman, of Holleman & Associates P.A. in Little Rock. “The ones who say they benefited would have done so on their own or somewhere else — I don’t think they got any benefit from being slaves.”
The suit says forced labor without compensation is, among others, unconstitutional in Arkansas. It says it believes at least 30 other people have been assigned