A nationally renowned drug rehab programme in Texas and Louisiana has sent patients struggling with addiction to work for free for some of the biggest companies in the United States, likely in violation of federal labour law.
The Cenikor Foundation has dispatched tens of thousands of patients to work without pay at more than 300 for-profit companies over the years. In the name of rehabilitation, patients have moved boxes in a sweltering warehouse for Walmart, built an oil platform for Shell and worked at an Exxon refinery along the Mississippi River.
“It's like the closest thing to slavery,” said Logan Tullier, a former Cenikor participant who worked 10 hours a day at oil refineries, laying steel rebar in 46 degrees Celsius heat. “We were making them all the money.”
Cenikor’s success is built on a simple idea: that work helps people recover from addiction. All participants have to do is surrender their pay to cover the costs of the two-year programme.
But the constant work leaves little time for counselling or treatment, transforming the rehab into little more than a cheap and expendable labour pool for private companies, an investigation by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting has found.
At some job sites, participants lacked proper supervision, safety equipment and training, leading to routine injuries. Over the last decade, nearly two dozen Cenikor workers have been seriously injured or maimed on the job, according to hundreds of pages of lawsuits, workers' compensation records and interviews with former staff. One worker died from his on-the-job injuries in 1995.
Labour experts say Cenikor’s entire business model might be illegal under federal labour law. The Fair Labor Standards Act requires all employees to be paid minimum wage and overtime.
“They have to look at a different way to run their business operation other than merely absconding with the workers’ wages,” Michael Hancock, a former Department of Labor official, said. “They're being preyed upon.”
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An ongoing Reveal investigation has exposed how many drug rehabs across the US have become little more than lucrative work camps for the private industry. Patients have slaughtered chickens on speeding assembly lines in Oklahoma and cared for residents at assisted living facilities in North Carolina.
Among these programmes, Cenikor stands out. It has a long history of accolades from sitting lawmakers and judges and even former President Ronald Reagan. Last year, the Texas-based nonprofit earned more than $7m from work contracts alone, making it one of the largest and most lucrative work-based rehabs in the country.
Bill Bailey, who as Cenikor's chief executive officer earned more than $400,000 in 2017, repeatedly declined requests for comment.
But in a statement, Cenikor officials said the work provides “a career path for clients to be hired by companies who traditionally do not hire those with felony convictions, allowing them to return to a life of being a responsible, contributing member of society.” They said they follow all state and federal laws.
Many Cenikor participants work for a network of subcontractors that then dispatch them to the major companies.