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A lawsuit filed in Benton County court this week alleges that two Arkansans worked at Northwest Arkansas chicken plants and other manufacturing sites without pay in lieu of criminal prosecution.

The plaintiffs accuse Simmons Foods, Hendren Plastics, up to 30 "John Does" and two rehabilitation programs of conspiring to use clients as free labor to fill a shortage of manufacturing workers in the region.

The lawsuit is seeking class-action status.

This is the third lawsuit filed since the Center for Investigative Reporting published an article on an Oklahoma rehabilitation program called Christian Alcoholics and Addicts in Recovery whose clients were put to work in meat-processing plants. The Jay, Okla., rehabilitation center is about 25 miles from Simmons Foods plants in Decatur, Ark., used for chicken or pet-food processing.

Plaintiffs -- Mark Fochtman, 33, and Shane O'Neal, 32 -- both enrolled in the yearlong program within the past three years. O'Neal, of Benton County, finished the program December 2015 and continued working for Simmons Foods afterwards, according to court documents.

Fochtman, of Washington County, joined the program in May 2015 and left after about six months. In March 2016, he joined a similar program called Drug and Alcohol Recovery Program (DARP), located in Decatur, where he worked at a nearby plastics manufacturer for no pay.

Both plaintiffs were recommended by drug courts for treatment and ended up in work camps for the chicken industry. The workers' wages were retained by the rehabilitation programs in lieu of rent, food and other services . None of the money is used to pay court fees.

Donny Epp, spokesman for Simmons Foods, wrote in an email that the claims made by the plaintiffs are inconsistent with the company's operational policies and core values.

"There is another side of this story that has not been told about the hundreds of CAAIR [Christian Alcoholics and Addicts in Recovery] participants who successfully completed CAAIR's program and decided to continue to work at Simmons' facilities," Epp said in a statement. "Simmons is proud of the nearly 30 current employees who graduated from the CAAIR program."

According to the lawsuit filed Monday in Benton County Circuit Court, Christians Alcoholics and Addicts in Recovery generates more than $1 million in annual revenue, and its officers pay themselves hundreds of thousands of dollars annually.

The Drug and Alcohol Recovery Program also doesn't distribute wages back to its clients. Instead clients' wages pay for the program's services and salaries of its staff. The programs are not certified treatment centers nor licensed by the Arkansas Department of Human Services. They are 12-step programs and not required to have a license.

"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."

Two lawsuits seeking class-action status were filed in Oklahoma courts earlier this month with similar allegations against Simmons Foods and Christian Alcoholics and Addicts in Recovery. Some of the Oklahoma plaintiffs claimed that they had significant injuries on the job and never received workers' compensation payments. One of the plaintiffs -- Brandon Spurgin-- filed a workers' compensation claim in Arkansas.

"We think these drug courts have been duped into this program," said attorney Jerry Garner, of Holleman & Associates. "It doesn't seem like they've been told what these programs are doing."

The lawsuit's "John Does" are classified as for-profit businesses that have allegedly employed plaintiffs, violated the Arkansas Minimum Wage Act and are responsible for unpaid wages, according to the latest lawsuit. The defendants are facing counts of involuntary servitude, failure to pay minimum wage and overtime, and violating the state's civil rights act.

Simmons Foods said it's prepared to use every resource at its disposal to defend itself. The Siloam Springs-based company earns annual revenues of $1.4 billion.

Business on 10/28/2017

Print Headline: 3rd suit alleges rehabs kept pay

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