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Rehab clients claim wage violations

by Nathan Owens | October 11, 2017 at 2:09 a.m.

Three Oklahoma men filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday claiming that they worked in Simmons Foods chicken plants for limited or no pay as part of a Christian alcohol and rehabilitation program.

The lawsuit alleges that the defendants -- Christian Alcoholics & Addicts in Recovery and Siloam Springs-based Simmons Foods Inc. -- are in violation of state and federal labor laws that require employers to pay employees at least minimum wage and overtime for their work.

The plaintiffs also allege fraud, human trafficking, and involuntary servitude, according to court documents. The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Tulsa, seeks class-action status.

The lawsuit was filed less than a week after the Center for Investigative Reporting published an article detailing how rehabilitation programs operate as work camps for meatpacking companies.

The investigation claimed that every year hundreds of men work for Simmons Foods Inc., while Christian Alcoholics & Addicts in Recovery, or CAAIR, keeps all their wages.

Simmons Foods declined to comment Tuesday.

The Center for Investigative Reporting said that the men in the program never received pay from Simmons. After a year of service, the few men who graduate from the program are eligible for a $1,000 gift.

Plaintiffs Arthur Copeland, Brandon Spurgin and Brad McGahey claim that they worked more than 40 hours per week at a Simmons Foods processing plant.

When they weren't at the plants, they stayed at the Christian group's rehabilitation center in Jay, Okla., where they were provided bunk beds, meals and Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous meetings.

Simmons Foods said last week that about 120 employees in Northwest Arkansas are classified as clients of the group.

According to Simmons Foods, the company pays the rehabilitation group about $12 per hour for each client's work, which is more than the starting pay at some Simmons facilities.

Once payment is received "CAAIR is responsible for compensating their clients while they are in the program," Simmons spokesman Donny Epp wrote in an Oct. 4 email.

Dozens of men told reporters for the Center for Investigative Reporting that injuries were routine at the chicken plants and that, in some cases, the rehabilitation group filed workers' compensation claims on their behalf and collected the payouts.

The Arkansas Workers' Compensation Commission has opened an investigation into the rehabilitation program. The commission will present its findings to the Arkansas Insurance Department and the state attorney general's office.

Over the years, Christian Alcoholics & Addicts in Recovery has filed paperwork indicating that it had been made aware of its clients claiming injuries in Arkansas, said Barbara Webb, chief executive officer of the Arkansas Workers' Compensation Commission.

"We want to make sure they are paid the benefits they're entitled to," Webb said. "This is something we do not take lightly."

Oklahoma agencies including the state attorney general's office and the Department of Labor also are investigating the program. Tulsa's drug courts are re-evaluating their relationship with the rehabilitation group, according to the Center for Investigative Reporting.

Business on 10/11/2017

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