Across the country, drug and alcohol recovery programs claiming to help the poor and the desperate are instead conscripting them into forms of indentured servitude, requiring them to work without pay or for pennies on the dollar, in exchange for their stay.
Some work at rehab-run businesses, such as thrift stores or car washes. Others work at outside enterprises, including small businesses, temp agencies and some of the largest, most profitable corporations in the country. Rehab participants have worked at Williams Sonoma, Shell, Walmart and Tyson Foods.
They have manufactured supplies used in the coronavirus pandemic, staffed hospitals, maintained oil refineries, made lawnmowers, roasted coffee, detailed cars and sorted clothing donations.
Many of the programs claim the work is treatment, often calling it “work therapy.” Labor experts call it illegal.
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This article was provided to The Associated Press by the nonprofit news outlet Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting.
“I don’t think there’s any real ambiguity about what the law requires,” said D. Michael Hancock, former assistant administrator for the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division. “There’s nothing therapeutic about not paying workers.”
For the first time, Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting has determined how widespread these programs have become, identifying at least 300 rehab facilities in 44 states that have required participants to work without pay. In recent years, at least 60,000 people a year attended such rehab programs, Reveal found.
To identify these rehabs, Reveal contacted several hundred programs with survey questions, interviewed hundreds of current and former employees and participants, and reviewed thousands of pages of tax records, financial documents, and wage and injury reports.
The programs provide shared room and board. Some offer basic rehab services, such as drug counseling, classes and recreational activities; others, only church services and Bible study. While participants put in 20 to 80 hours per week of often-backbreaking labor, the payment for their work goes to their rehab operators. A few facilities offer participants a token amount of their pay in return or a small allowance; others offer nothing at all.
Yet the U.S. Department of Labor, tasked with enforcing the country’s labor laws, has failed to rein in these labor abuses. Rehab regulation is left to the states, and few states require these programs to obtain a license or report information. Less than 1 out of 5 programs Reveal identified were licensed.
In this oversight vacuum, the programs have multiplied, spurred by staggering addiction rates, a growing demand for alternatives to prison and a shortage of treatment facilities.
“It’s a really genius idea,” said Caleb Brietzke, who in 2019 attended the HOW Foundation in Texas, where he said he trimmed trees for rehab clients up to 70 hours a week for $20 in “walking around money.” The program did not return calls for comment. “Take people no one will miss, and nowhere to go, and use them as basically free labor.”
Many rehab operators said work is a way to instill structure in the lives of people whose old routines were destroyed by addiction.
“A lot of these guys have never worked or lack any type of work skills,” said Guillermo Hernandez, a director of Crusaders of Texas, a recovery program in Dallas that sends participants to do unpaid construction and cleanup jobs. “By the time they get out of here, they have some type of trade where they can be a productive member of society.”
A third of the facilities Reveal identified accept court referrals; these participants typically attend rehab in lieu of serving jail or prison time. A few judges said the programs provided an opportunity for recovery in places where there are few treatment options; others saw work as an effective treatment for addiction.
“Sometimes, tough love works better,” the late Judge Larry Gist, who presided over a drug court in Beaumont, Texas, said in a 2018 interview. He said many defendants in his court lacked a work ethic: “They’ve never achieved anything and don’t know how to achieve it.”
Some participants said these programs worked for them. Blake Uhran was 18 and struggling with heroin addiction when he entered Cross Training Ministries in Clewiston, Florida, in 2010. He attended morning classes, but was sent to work without pay for much of the day mowing lawns for such business clients as U.S. Sugar. Neither Cross Training nor U.S. Sugar responded to queries.
“When it’s 100 degrees outside and picking weeds, it does change a man,” Uhran said.
Yet many participants said the unpaid work made them feel exploited and expendable.
“I was worn down and exhausted by the whole thing,” said Timothy Klick, who attended a Cenikor Foundation program in Fort Worth, Texas in 2018. There, he was sent to work full time at a factory, making ThermoServ dinnerware. (ThermoServ did not respond to queries.) “I feel like a slave, honestly. I’m being forced to work and not getting anything out of it.”
In a statement to Reveal, Cenikor described its program as voluntary and said it helped participants “overcome substance use disorder and build successful work and life habits.”
Cenikor claims 67% of graduates remain drug-free three years after entering the program. But those numbers disguise a bleak reality: Less than 8% of Cenikor participants graduate. Other programs that provided graduation rates to Reveal cited rates so low that it was clear few participants made it to the end. Those who leave early can face jail or relapse. Some have overdosed and died.
A spate of injuries
Although they are typically affordable, these programs have severe costs captured in thousands of pages of workers’ compensation files, court documents and medical records. Program participants are routinely injured on the job, these records show, whether due to unsafe conditions at their assigned worksites or the dangerous nature of the work itself. Three have died. In many cases, rehab-run businesses failed to provide adequate safety training or equipment.
At Teen Challenge of New England, one of at least 64 Teen Challenge work-based recovery programs across the country, one participant died in 2011 of chemical burns from working at the rehab’s car wash. The program, which declined to comment, had not provided safety training, according to the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
A HOW Foundation rehab in Tulsa, Oklahoma, runs a landscaping business staffed by its participants. In 2018, one participant fell nearly 20 feet while pruning a tree. He recovered but now is plagued by seizures. The program, which did not respond to requests for comment, had not provided safety equipment, according to court records.
When Richard Geiler enrolled in Heartland Recovery Center in La Belle, Missouri, he was assigned to work at Heartland Dairy, a linked for-profit venture, then the largest dairy farm in the state, in exchange for room and board. The cargo van that transported Heartland participants lacked seat belts, and the rear doors did not latch. “A cat could push open that thing,” a sheriff’s deputy would later say.
Geiler was riding in the van in September 2015 when the driver sped up to avoid a hay baler. The sudden acceleration caused Geiler to shoot out of his seat and through the unlatched doors. He landed headfirst and died two days later, resulting in a $9.5 million court settlement. Neither the dairy nor the rehab responded to queries.
Rehab participants also have faced risks when sent to work for private companies.
Nicholas Culpepper, a participant at a Cenikor program in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, was sent out in 2018 to repair a ceiling light at a local high school. He electrocuted himself, falling 10 feet off a ladder and breaking his back. Cenikor declined to comment on the incident; a civil suit is pending against the employer.
“He went in there a strong, able-bodied young man, and he’s coming out of there much less than that,” said Jeanie Payne, Culpepper’s grandmother. “He’s not able to do any kind of physical labor anymore.”
The work-based drug treatment model dates back to the late 1950s, when a recovery community called Synanon used confrontation and punishment to rehabilitate drug users. The program was sustained entirely by the unpaid labor of its members. Soon, programs modeled after Synanon spread across the country.
As this recovery model gained traction, it also drew the scrutiny of the Department of Labor. In 1977, the department filed a case against the Susan and Tony Alamo Foundation for violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act. The foundation, a ministry based in Arkansas, put its associates, typically people struggling with addiction, to work at for-profit businesses – including a jean jacket factory, a hog farm and a grocery store – without pay.
The Labor Department ordered the foundation to pay its associates minimum wage and overtime, but the Alamos refused, claiming the work had a religious purpose and was exempt from federal law. When the department filed suit, Alamo appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ultimately found in 1985 that Alamo associates were employees under federal law and could not waive their rights to compensation. The Alamos could deduct a reasonable cost for room and board, but all remaining wages had to be paid.
Yet since that case, the Labor Department has failed to ensure that other work-based rehab programs are abiding by labor laws. Department officials have at times caved to political pressure, dropping cases after finding violations.
In 1990, in response to a complaint from a former participant, the department launched an investigation into the nation’s largest chain of work-based rehabs, The Salvation Army, which operates about 100 programs across the country. At The Salvation Army’s rehabs, participants were required to work full time processing donations for the organization’s thrift stores, receiving a stipend of only $5 to $20 a week. The department found The Salvation Army had violated labor laws and ordered the nonprofit to pay its participants minimum wage.
The Salvation Army refused to comply. It sued, then enlisted members of Congress to defend the venerable charity. Within a month, the department backed off. The agency suspended the investigation, then added new rules to its field operations handbook instructing investigators to obtain prior approval before investigating pay issues at Salvation Army rehabs.
The Department of Labor declined repeated interview requests.
In the absence of enforcement, one Salvation Army participant in San Francisco turned to the courts. The charity prevailed in that civil case, and in 1996, an appeals court found that the participant was not an employee because he had signed an intake form saying he was a program “beneficiary.”
“No Federal court has been asked to rule on the issue since,” David Jolley, a Salvation Army spokesperson, wrote in an email. “Thus, The Salvation Army Adult Rehabilitation Center continues its almost 140 year old work therapy model.”
The successful battles waged by these programs have had a chilling effect on enforcement. Since The Salvation Army case, the Labor Department has attempted to enforce the law in only a handful of cases. At the HOW Foundation in Oklahoma, the Lovelady Center in Alabama and Recovery Connections Community in North Carolina, the department found violations. But after those cases concluded, Reveal found, all three programs continued to withhold pay.
This article was provided to The Associated Press by the nonprofit news outlet Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting. Will Carless, Amy Julia Harris, Sohyeon Hwang, Quinn Lewis and Heidi Swillinger contributed reporting.
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