July 7, 2020
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.
“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.