December 13, 2017 Kim Krisberg 0Comment

At Reveal, Amy Julia Harris and Shoshana Walter investigate retired Oklahoma Judge Thomas Landrith, who started the first rural drug court in the country. About 10 years ago, Landrith also started a rehab work camp — Southern Oklahoma Addiction Recovery or SOAR — where defendants had to work full time for no pay at a Coca-Cola plant and other companies under threat of imprisonment.

Coca-Cola guidelines prohibit forced labor and in response to the Reveal investigation, the Oklahoma bottling plant in question has already severed ties with SOAR. Harris and Walter write:

Reveal spoke with more than a dozen men who attended the SOAR program. All but one said the program was more concerned with work than their recovery. Cody Evans called it “the worst experience of my life.” Dustin Barnes called the people who run SOAR “crooks.”

“‘If you can’t work, your ass should not be here.’ They tell you that when you first get there,” said Lee Purdy, who was court-ordered to SOAR and worked at Leachco (a factory that makes pregnancy pillows). “This ain’t the place for you if you can’t work.”

If men got hurt or were too sick to work, the program often kicked them out, they said. Some worked despite being injured.

“It made me mad and feel like I really wasn’t worth nothing,” said Lucas Allen, one of the men Landrith sent to SOAR in 2015. He said he was forced to work with an injured hand. “It’s like they didn’t care what happened to me.”

Read the full story, which is part of a larger investigative series into rehab programs that funnel free labor into private industry, at Reveal.

In other news:

Huffington Post: Dave Jamieson reports that with a new conservative majority on the National Labor Relations Board, its members are considering scrapping worker-friendly union election reforms adopted under President Obama. Earlier this week, Jamieson writes, the agency published a Federal Register notice asking whether it should keep current union election rules in place, change them or get rid of them — the board’s three Republican members approved the notice, while the two Democratic members disapproved. The agency’s staff had spent thousands of hours “carefully” updating the election rules in 2014. In a dissent, board member Mark Gaston Pearce described the new Federal Register notice — known officially as a “Notice and Request for Information” — as a “Notice and Quest for Alternative Facts.” Jamieson writes: “Pearce’s Democratic colleague, Lauren McFerran, wrote that the timing of the board’s request suggests the majority is interested not in ‘objective data,’ but in ‘manufacturing a rationale’ for rolling back the rules now that Republicans are in power.”

KPCC: Leslie Berestein Rojas writes about the effects of California’s wildfires on farmworkers still reporting to work in the fields of Southern California. She spoke to advocates with Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy, which reported a number of farmworkers in the fields without protective masks during the “worst of the smoke and ash.” KPCC contacted other growers who said they had given workers facemasks and the option of leaving the fields. Last week, the California Department of Industrial Relations issued an advisory, saying employers “must consider taking appropriate measures” from wildfire smoke, however when and which measures to take are up to employers. Critics, such as state legislator Judy Chu, who previously worked to protect farmworkers from heat illness, says such wildfire protections need to be stronger. Rojas quoted Chu, who said: “Certainly we see extraordinary hazards now because of these fires. And so there needs to be a renewed effort toward getting protections for our outdoor workers.”

NPR: Samantha Raphelson reports on growing concerns about worker safety inside the so-called gig economy, starting the article with the story of 19-year-old Antawani Wright-Davis, who was struck and killed by a dump truck while delivering food on his bike for DoorDash, another app that classifies its workers as independent contractors. Because he wasn’t considered an employee — which allows gig economy employers to sidestep a number of labor protections — Wright-Davis’ family wasn’t eligible for workers’ compensation. Fortunately, as the gig economy grows, some states, such as New York and Washington, are considering new protections for independent contractors. Raphelson quoted Jessica Martinez, co-executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, who said: “It’s essentially the Tinder economy. When a temp worker is done with his or her shift, the boss swipes left and claims to have no further obligation.”

The Stranger: Heidi Groover reports that domestic workers and elected officials in Seattle have kicked off a campaign calling for a new set of labor protections for domestic workers. In particular, workers and advocates with Working Washington as well as members of the Seattle City Council are urging the city to create a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights that would require written contracts for domestic workers and ensure such workers are covered by local labor protections. The Seattle campaign follows in the footsteps of worker efforts in a number of other states, including California, New York and Illinois. Groover writes: “If recent history is any indication, the bill of rights stands a good chance at Seattle City Hall. Working Washington is a labor advocacy group funded in part by Service Employees International Union Local 775. SEIU 775’s president helped negotiate Seattle’s $15 minimum wage, and Working Washington advocated for secure scheduling and unionization for rideshare drivers. Both passed the city council unanimously despite business concerns.”

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