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Two more Oklahoma men sued Siloam Springs-based Simmons Foods and a Christian rehabilitation center on Friday claiming they were used as free labor at chicken processing plants.

The plaintiffs -- Bohdi Chance Starns and Lucas Don Miller-Allen -- join three other Oklahoma men who filed a lawsuit Oct. 10, claiming they represent hundreds of young men who worked at Simmons Foods without pay or access to workers' compensation. The lawsuits seek class-action status.

According to the lawsuits, Christian Alcoholics and Addicts in Recovery -- a program available to judges as an alternative to sending felons to prison -- kept all their wages. Friday's filing called the Christian Alcoholics and Addicts in Recovery program a "forced labor camp."

The program is not certified for drug treatment, according to Oklahoma's Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services. According to the program's website, there is no charge to join and workers' earnings go toward housing, food and basic personal items.

The plaintiffs claim that the program is in violation of the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Acts, and the state laws of Oklahoma, Missouri and Arkansas.

The lawsuit filed Friday in the Northern District Court of Oklahoma in Tulsa said the defendants -- Christian Alcoholics and Addicts in Recovery and Simmons Foods -- engaged in human trafficking and involuntary servitude.

Christian Alcoholics and Addicts in Recovery is a yearlong program. The men and women enrolled are eligible for a $1,000 gift upon completion of the program. According to Arkansas Community Correction, 13 people from Arkansas have agreed to work in the Christian Alcoholics and Addicts in Recovery program since Oct. 6, 2015. Many didn't finish the yearlong term.

Simmons Foods said it pays Christian Alcoholics and Addicts in Recovery workers about $12 an hour, but since they're convicts, the wages are funneled to program representatives who are responsible for distributing funds.

The plaintiffs are seeking restitution on behalf of themselves and others who've participated in the program.

The second lawsuit was filed about a week after the Center for Investigative Reporting published an article detailing how some program participants have suffered injury on the job but never received compensation.

The Arkansas Workers' Compensation Commission said five such claims are currently under investigation. One was for Brandon Spurgin, a plaintiff in the Oct. 10 lawsuit.

While part of the Christian Alcoholics and Addicts in Recovery program, Spurgin claimed he often worked more than 40 hours per week for Simmons Foods.

In 2014, while working at a Simmons Foods processing plant, a metal door crashed on Spurgin's head, damaging his spine and leaving him in chronic pain, according to the filing.

Shortly after, Christian Alcoholics and Addicts in Recovery filed a worker's compensation claim for $4,500 on Spurgin's behalf. According to the lawsuit, Spurgin received none of the payment.

Janet Wilkerson, chief executive officer of Christian Alcoholics and Addicts in Recovery Inc., has acknowledged that keeping worker's compensation claims is standard practice.

In 2007 the Democrat-Gazette reported that Wilkerson, then-vice president of human resources at Peterson Farms -- later purchased by Simmons Foods -- said the chicken industry faces high turnover rates in processing plants and relies on these workers to fill a need in Northwest Arkansas.

Wilkerson told the Democrat-Gazette she wants rehab clients that work at chicken plants to see the program as a stepping-stone into full-time work.

According to the lawsuit filed Friday, the plaintiffs represent a group estimated between 800 and 1,500 people.

Oklahoma's district court system is re-evaluating its relationship with Christian Alcoholics and Addicts in Recovery, according to the Tulsa World.

Arkansas agencies say they are also looking into claims presented by the Center for Investigative Reporting, but nothing official has been released.

Business on 10/17/2017

Print Headline: 2 more say rehab center kept wages

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