Occupational Health News Roundup

At Reveal, Amy Julia Harris and Shoshana Walter investigate an increasing criminal justice trend in which defendants are sent to rehab, instead of prison. On its face, the idea is a good one, especially for people struggling with addiction. However, the reporters find that many so-called rehab centers are little more than labor camps funneling unpaid workers into private industry.

The story focused on one particular center, Christian Alcoholics & Addicts in Recovery (CAAIR) in Oklahoma. Started by chicken company executives, CAAIR’s court-ordered residents work full-time at Simmons Foods Inc., a billion-dollar company that processes poultry for businesses like Walmart, KFC and PetSmart. CAAIR residents don’t get paid and aren’t covered by workers’ compensation; if they get injured on the job, they can be kicked out of CAAIR or sent back to prison. Harris and Walter write:

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.”

Read the full story at Reveal.

In other news:

NPR: Kathleen Masterson reports that Ben & Jerry’s has a signed a deal to help improve working conditions on Vermont dairy farms that supply milk to the ice cream company. Representatives from Ben & Jerry’s and Migrant Justice, a farmworker advocacy group, signed the agreement, which commits the company to paying higher prices to dairy farms that join the Milk with Dignity program. The ultimate goal is to source all of the company’s milk through the program, which ensures workers get adequate breaks, time off, paid sick days, safe job conditions and fair housing. Masterson quoted Enrique Balcazar of Migrant Justice: “This is the first expansion that we’ve seen from the model of worker-driven social responsibly that was pioneered by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in the Florida tomato fields. It is a great victory and an honor for us dairy workers to expand that model to the dairy industry of Vermont.”

Newsweek: Christianna Silva reports that “Trump’s anti-union Labor Department” has just released a study showing that nearly every union member — 94 percent — has access to employer-provided health coverage. On the flip side, 67 percent of nonunion workers don’t have access to employer-provided health care. The research, from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, found that among workers who have access to employer-provided care, more union workers take advantage of the option. Access the full statistics here.

MassLive: Shira Schoenberg reports that members of the Massachusetts Senate passed a bill to extend OSHA protections to all public-sector workers. In 2014, state lawmakers expanded OSHA protections to cover all executive branch workers, but the protections didn’t cover those working for cities, towns and higher education. The new bill, which still has to get through the state House, would also establish a new Municipal Occupational Health and Safety Subcommittee. The Massachusetts Department of Industrial Accidents reports that each week, about 28 municipal workers suffer injuries that keep them out of work for five days. Schoenberg quoted Massachusetts AFL-CIO President Steven Tolman: “When Massachusetts workers arrive on the job each day, their health and safety protections shouldn’t vary depending on whether they work in the public sector or private sector.”

USA Today: Kevin Johnson reports on the directive from Attorney General Jeff Sessions saying federal civil rights law does not protect transgender people from discrimination at work. Not surprisingly, the directive rolls back Obama-era protections that stated the “most straightforward reading” of the law also protected transgender workers. Johnson quoted James Esseks, director of the ACLU’s LGBT & HIV Project, who said: “Today marks another low point for a Department of Justice which has been cruelly consistent in its hostility towards the LGBT community and in particular, its inability to treat transgender people with basic dignity and respect.”

Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for 15 years. Follow me on Twitter — @kkrisberg.