Judge: Lawsuit Over Alleged Forced Labor Moves Forward

Liz Carey

Jay, OK (WorkersCompensation.com) – Three men who allege they were forced to work for free at a chicken processing plant instead of getting the drug rehabilitation they signed up for will get their day in court, a federal judge has ruled.

The men, all participants in the Christian Alcoholics & Addicts in Recovery (CAAIR), said that instead of being provided with any sort of drug or alcohol treatment program, they were forced to work as free labor under threat of incarceration by the program operators and the company the program hired the men out to.

As previously reported in WorkersCompensation.com, the men entered into CAAIR for drug treatment as part of Oklahoma’s Drug Court program.

In 2018, a report from Reveal, a publication of the Center for Investigative Reporting, found that CAAIR, was using its “clients” sent to it by drug courts in Oklahoma, Arkansas, Texas and Missouri as free labor. Those sentenced there were sent to work on chicken farms, the report said. But CAAIR’s clients were never paid for their labor. And if they were injured, CAAIR filed workers’ compensation claims for them, and kept the payments.

According to the report, Janet Wilkerson, CEO of CAAIR, said that the men’s wages and workers’ compensation payments went toward the cost of the program, including paying for the participants’ food, classes and housing.

“Money is an obstacle for so many of these men,” she said in the report. “We’re not going to charge them to come here, but they’re going to have to work. That’s a part of recovery, getting up like you and I do every day and going to a job.”

The men came to the program through drug court and were offered a choice to go into the program in order to avoid jail time. In many cases, the men came to the program with real drug problems only to find their only source of rehabilitation was hard work and more hard work for no pay, the report alleges.

The men filed suit in 2018 after the report was released. The suit accuses CAAIR and Simmons Foods, Inc. of violations of federal and state wage claims, racketeering, human trafficking and violations of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act.

As part of the federal wage claims, the men said when they were injured on the job, they received no workers’ compensation and minimal medical care. Court records show one of the men was injured when his hand got stuck in a conveyor belt and was crushed.

“When this happened, ‘[o]ne of the CAAIR’s top managers” picked (the plaintiff) up at Simmon’s plant and took him to the hospital. After returning to CAAIR, however, (the plaintiff) was required to work in contravention of his doctor’s orders,” court records said.

Other plaintiffs said they were ordered to work while injured, and that if workers’ compensation claims were filed on their behalf, the benefits were kept by CAAIR.

In his ruling, United States District Judge Terence Kern said the plaintiff’s case should move forward, despite Simmons and CAAIR’s motion to dismiss the case.

Kern found that the men could be found to be employees under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, and that not only did the men not receive minimum wage for their work, but that the men worked overtime, in violation of labor standards laws. Simmons had asked the court to dismiss some of the charges because the plaintiffs should not be considered employees. The company argued in its motion to the court that because it had purchased the labor from CAAIR at a discounted rate, the workers were similar to “prisoners” who could not be considered employees because they were only participating in the program to avoid prison time.

According to the lawsuit, the only “payment” the plaintiffs received was a daily bologna sandwich and a bunk bed in “a cramped unsanitary dorm room.”

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