They Thought They Were Going to Rehab. They Ended Up in Chicken Plants - Page 2

By Amy Julia Harris and Shoshana Walter for Reveal 10/10/17

The programs promise freedom from addiction. Instead, they’ve turned thousands of men and women into indentured servants.

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A man in a yellow work suit walks towards a factory, dead chickens hang from above, text reads: All Work No Pay.
Men sent to Christian Alcoholics & Addicts in Recovery, better known as CAAIR, work full time at chicken processing plants. The hours are long, the conditions are brutal and the program keeps all the wages. Credit: Gabriel Hongsdusit/Reveal

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About 280 men are sent to CAAIR each year by courts throughout Oklahoma, as well as Arkansas, Texas and Missouri. Instead of paychecks, the men get bunk beds, meals and Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous meetings. If there’s time between work shifts, they can meet with a counselor or attend classes on anger management and parenting. Weekly Bible study is mandatory. For the first four months, so is church. Most days revolve around the work.

“Money is an obstacle for so many of these men,” said Janet Wilkerson, CAAIR’s founder and CEO. “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 program has become an invaluable labor source. Over the years, Simmons Foods repeatedly has laid off paid employees while expanding its use of CAAIR. Simmons now is so reliant on the program for some shifts that the plants likely would shut down if the men didn’t show up, according to former staff members and plant supervisors.

But Donny Epp, a spokesman for Simmons Foods, said the company does not depend on CAAIR to fill a labor shortage.

“It’s about building relationships with our community and supporting the opportunity to help people become productive citizens,” he said.

The arrangement also has paid off for CAAIR. In seven years, the program brought in more than $11 million in revenue, according to tax filings.

“They came up with a hell of an idea,” said Parker Grindstaff, who graduated earlier this year. “They’re making a killing off of us.”


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Janet Wilkerson, CAAIR’s founder and CEO, shows off the pantry that feeds the participants in her recovery program. Credit: Shoshana Walter/Reveal

Janet Wilkerson had a problem. As vice president of human resources for Peterson Farms Inc., she was having trouble filling the overnight shift at her chicken processing plants. The hours were long. The pay was low. And there never seemed to be enough workers.

Then a convicted meth dealer named Raymond Jones walked into her office in 2003 with a story and a proposal, according to a newspaper story at the time. After finding Jesus, Jones had overcome his addictions and decided to start a rehab. He asked Wilkerson to take a chance and hire his men. They were cheap, he promised, and they could work all hours. Their wages would fund his recovery program.

Wilkerson eagerly agreed. She called the arrangement a “win, win, win” for the men, chicken plants and Jones.

She was so taken with the idea that four years later, she created a nearly identical program of her own.

Her brother had died from alcoholism, and her husband’s drinking had nearly destroyed their marriage. She had long wanted to help others like them. The economics also made sense. The chicken plants needed workers, and Jones’ program was bringing in revenue of more than $2 million a year.

Wilkerson had the connections to make it happen. In addition to working in human resources at Peterson Farms, she also moonlighted as a spokeswoman for Simmons Foods and other top poultry companies. Wilkerson enlisted her assistant and another poultry executive and brought Jones along as a $250,000-a-year consultant.

Then she pitched the idea to her bosses. The companies wouldn’t have to pay workers’ compensation insurance, payroll taxes or medical care. They could replace the workers for any reason at any time. Like a temp agency, her program would pay for everything; the men just needed to work.

Simmons signed on. Later, Crystal Lake Farms and Tyson Foods Inc. did, too.

Jones agreed to introduce Wilkerson and her business partners to court officials. But his reputation was deteriorating. Plant supervisors said Jones’ workers sometimes would show up high. Workers complained that Jones wasn’t feeding them.

Wilkerson vowed to make her program better. She and her partners hired away one of Jones’ top managers and used men from his program to build their first dormitory. They worked for free, as community service. Then she stopped paying Jones and they parted ways.

By 2010, hundreds of men poured into CAAIR from courts across Oklahoma. So did the money, allowing the Wilkersons – Janet as CEO and her husband, Don, as vice president of operations – to draw combined salaries of $168,000 a year, nearly four times the median household income in their area.

That’s when Brad McGahey arrived.

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A county welcome sign stands near the Simmons Foods chicken processing plant in Southwest City, Mo. Credit: Shane Bevel for Reveal

At Simmons Foods, McGahey first went to work in evisceration, suctioning guts and blood out of slaughtered chickens speeding past him on metal hooks. Then he became a grader, arranging raw breasts, thighs and legs into orderly piles as they moved up a conveyor belt to packaging. It was monotonous work.

Growing up in the country, McGahey wasn’t bothered by the sight of dead animals. He’d gutted catfish and skinned deer all his life. But the first time he stepped into the Simmons plant, the stench of chicken blood and feces was overpowering.

“I almost threw up,” he remembered.

On May 27, 2010, three months into his time at CAAIR, something went wrong.

A machine dumped a mountain of parts onto the conveyor belt, causing chicken to pile up faster than he and his co-worker could sort it. As they plunged their hands into the heap of cold parts, McGahey remembers hearing a scream. His co-worker’s rubber glove was caught in the conveyor belt.

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Amy Julia Harris can be reached at [email protected], and Shoshana Walter can be reached at [email protected]. Follow them on Twitter: @amyjharris and @shoeshine.

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