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Chicken Workers Sue, Saying They Were Modern-Day Slaves

Shane Bevel / Reveal
CAAIR has a sprawling, grassy compound in northeastern Oklahoma. The one-year diversion program mainly relies on faith and work to treat addiction.

Three Oklahoma men filed a federal class-action lawsuit today alleging that they were modern-day slaves forced by a drug rehabilitation program to work for free in chicken processing plants.

An investigation by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting last week found that judges across the country have ordered defendants into rehab programs that double as work camps for for-profit companies.

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 other legal issues, the lawsuit alleges that the program violates the 13th Amendment ban on slave labor and involuntary servitude. The complaint also alleges that the program constitutes human trafficking under Oklahoma state law and accuses CAAIR of committing fraud by not providing men with the drug and alcohol rehabilitation services they were promised.

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.”

Janet Wilkerson, one of the founders of CAAIR and a former poultry company executive, told Reveal that wages from the men’s work go toward the cost of the program, including paying for their housing, food and classes. Of the three counselors on staff, only one is licensed. She said the program is a good alternative for those who cannot afford to pay for private rehab programs.

“Money is an obstacle for so many of these men,” she said. “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.”

Reveal also found that men at CAAIR often performed unpaid work for Wilkerson and her friends and family. She called it community service.

The drug courts’ use of the program may also violate Oklahoma’s drug court law, according to its authors. It requires judges to rely on programs certified by the state. CAAIR is not a certified treatment program.

Dozens of men told Reveal that injuries were routine at the chicken plants. In several cases, CAAIR filed workers’ compensation claims on their behalf and collected the payouts. The Arkansas Workers’ Compensation Commission now has launched an investigation into potential fraud, which could lead to criminal charges.

Other state agencies also are looking into the program, including the Oklahoma attorney general’s office and the Oklahoma Department of Labor. The Tulsa drug court is reconsidering its relationship with CAAIR. And the Nutrish pet food brand is reviewing its supply chain.

Amy Julia Harris can be reached at aharris@revealnews.org, and Shoshana Walter can be reached at swalter@revealnews.org. Follow them on Twitter:@amyjharris and @shoeshine.

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