OK: Work-Based Drug Rehab Program Under Investigation for Work Comp Irregularities

12 Oct, 2017 Jim Thompson


Jay, OK (WorkersCompensation.com) - A work-based drug rehabilitation program in Oklahoma where court-ordered clients work at a chicken processing facility for no pay is now the focus of a  federal class-action lawsuit, in part for allegedly filing workers’ compensation claims on behalf of workers and pocketing the proceeds.

Additionally, Oklahoma agencies including the state attorney general's office and the Department of Labor are investigating Christian Alcoholics and Addicts In Recovery (CAAIR), according to ArkansasOnline, the digital edition of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

The program, which sends drug court clients to work in plants operated by Arkansas-based Simmons Foods, is also under investigation by the Commissioner of the Arkansas Workers’ Compensation Commission, according to media reports.

The lawsuit, filed Wednesday in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Oklahoma by Arthur Copeland, Brandon Spurgin and Brad McGahey, three men who had been assigned to CAAIR, names both the rehabilitation program and Simmons Foods as defendants.

“Under guise of a drug alcohol rehabilitation program, CAAIR and Simmons have subjected the plaintiffs and putative class members to virtual slave labor,”  Tulsa law firm Smolen Smolen & Roytman, which is representing the three men and others who have participated with CAAIR, said in a statement reported by The Frontier Media Group.

With regard to specific workers’ compensation issues, the lawsuit notes that “Spurgin was working in a chicken plant one night in 2014 when a metal door crashed down on his head, damaging his spine and leaving him with chronic pain, according to medical records. C.A.A.I.R. filed for workers’ compensation on his behalf and fraudulently pocketed the $4,500 in insurance payments. Spurgin received nothing. Three years later, Spurgin is still in pain and can no longer hold a full-time job.”

The lawsuit also describes an injury sustained by McGahey in 2010 while he was attempting to help an injured co-worker at a Simmons facility.

A machine “smashed his hand,” according to the lawsuit,  “breaking several bones and nearly severing a tendon in his wrist.” Two years later, according to the lawsuit,  McGahey took his fight for workers’ compensation to court, where CAAIR’s attorneys “argued that McGahey’s recurring symptoms weren’t the result of the accident in the chicken plant. Suffering in constant pain and from depression, McGahey is now addicted to pain medication.”

Neither CAAIR nor Simmons Foods have yet filed a response to the lawsuit with the federal district court in Oklahoma, according to court records.

In addition to the lawsuit and the Oklahoma state inquiries, Philip Hood, Commissioner of the Arkansas Workers’ Compensation Commission, has opened an investigation into CAAIR, according to reporting from Reveal, the media platform operated by The Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit journalistic enterprise that broke the story.

While CAAIR is based in Oklahoma, its clients include men ordered to participate in the program from courts in other states as well, including Arkansas, Texas and Missouri.

According to Reveal, which recently reported on drug court rehabilitation programs like CAAIR, where participants are required to work without pay in private businesses, Hood said an investigation into alleged workers’ comp abuses at CAAIR could lead to criminal charges.

In a response to a Reveal inquiry, Hood wrote, “Let me see if I understand: They are ordered to work in this plant for free. And if they are injured on the job, they cannot recover anything? But a claim is filed on their behalf, and the rehab receives the money? That sounds like something from the early 1900s. And this is going on right now? And how is it legal? Them being ordered to work for free is nothing short of slavery.”

When Simmons’ headquarters was contacted some days ago by WorkersCompensation.com for comment on the Reveal report, it was transferred to the HR director, who hadn’t immediately responded by press time.

Similarly, calls this week to two separate numbers for CAAIR have not yet been returned.

However, in comments in the Reveal story, the program’s founder, Janet Wilkerson, admitted that CAAIR files workers’ comp claims for injured workers and collects any payments. 

“That’s the way it works,” Wilkerson told Reveal.

“She said they keep the workers’ (sic) comp payments intended for the men to pay for the program’s food, housing and counseling costs,” the Reveal story states, going on to quote Wilkerson saying, “Yes, we did keep that. Right, wrong or indifferent, that’s what happened.”

According to the Reveal story, CAAIR requires the men assigned to the program “to sign a form stating that they are clients, not employees, and therefore have no right to workers’ comp.”

In a WorkersCompensation.com check with other states that have sent drug court participants to CAAIR, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Insurance said the department “can’t comment or confirm” whether that state is following Arkansas’ lead in looking into the program. 

Neither of the other two states outside of Oklahoma that have reportedly sent drug court clients to CAAIR responded to requests for comment. As of Thursday morning, officials in the Oklahoma Insurance Department were working on a statement regarding CAAIR, according to a department spokeswoman.

The reported practice of CAAIR submitting workers’ comp claims for clients, then pocketing the proceeds, has caught a number of workers’ compensation experts by surprise. 

Mark Walls, a vice president at workers’ comp insurer Safety National, said in an interview last week that while there has been some debate regarding whether people in prison are entitled to workers’ compensation benefits, he had never heard of rehabilitation programs filing claims and pocketing the proceeds.

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    • Jim Thompson

      Jim Thompson is a veteran award-winning journalist with 30 years of experience as a newspaper reporter and editor. During his career, he has covered state and local government in Georgia, the University of Georgia, and a range of economic development issues. A Georgia native, Thompson holds a bachelor's degree in political science from the University of Georgia.

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