June 03, 2019

When you work, you expect to get paid, right? But not for participants who work while getting sober at a type of substance abuse rehabilitation facility in North Carolina. These facilities are known as therapeutic communities. Shortly after patients arrive at these long term residential treatment facilities they start working at outside companies, and the money they earn goes directly to the rehab. The jobs involve long hours at unexpected places. In one case, moving the substance they are trying to avoid.

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WFAE spoke to 13 former patients who went to FIRST Blue Ridge in Ridgecrest and a nearby facility called Recovery Ventures. All told similar stories of not getting paid for working. However, patients at Recovery Ventures complained of 16 hour work days and questionable treatment. WFAE learned about these two facilities from the program Reveal at the Center for Investigative Reporting as part of a network of local journalists investigating work-based rehab programs across the country. There are five licensed therapeutic communities in North Carolina that serve up to 596 people.

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One of the big appeals for patients at FIRST at Blue Ridge is they don’t get a bill. Many patients don’t have insurance. How else are they going to get help? The idea of work also appeals to court systems that send people to therapeutic communities as part of pre-trial release or alternative sentencing programs.

But these work arrangements are new to attorney Michael Hancock. He was a senior official at the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division, which investigates worker complaints. He’s now a private employment attorney in Washington D.C.

“In 20 years at Wage and Hour, I did not encounter residential treatment facilities that were essentially acting as temporary staffing agency,” he said. “Placing residents as a matter of routine with third party employers and retaining all their wages.”

According to reporting by Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting rehabs in Oklahoma, Texas and Louisiana have also put patients to work without pay. 

North Carolina regulations about these types of rehabs prohibits patients from getting income for their work, unless facilities get a waiver. But Hancock said that isn’t likely in line with federal labor laws. A 1985 Supreme Court case established working without pay even for a non-profit with a religious or rehabilitative purpose violates federal labor laws.

Federal and state labor department spokespeople declined interviews. A federal labor department spokesperson said people can file a lawsuit if they believe their rights are violated.

The full article can be accessed here.