Silver Taube: Epidemic of unpaid labor in rehab programs must be stopped
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    Unpaid work-based programs are often the cornerstone of alcohol and drug rehab.

    In a July 7, 2020 article that is part of a Reveal investigative series on these programs, reporter Shoshana Walter said her team identified at least 300 rehab facilities in 44 states that required unpaid labor from participants. They found that, in recent years, at least 60,000 people have gone through these programs annually. Some participants work at thrift stores or car washes, and others work at profitable corporations such as Exxon, Shell, Walmart and Tyson.

    The reporters interviewed Timothy Klick, who attended a Cenikor Foundation program in Fort Worth, Texas in 2018 and worked full time at a factory making dinnerware for ThermoServ.

    “I feel like a slave, honestly,” said Kirk. “I’m being forced to work and not getting anything out of it.”

    The Reveal article notes a California program, the Jericho Project, began sending participants to work full time at Williams Sonoma, a Fortune 500 company. According to confidential financial records obtained by Reveal, the participants were not paid for their labor. The Jericho Project remains licensed with the state today.

    As soon as the unpaid labor model in rehab gained national attention, the U.S. Department of Labor began to scrutinize it.

    In 1977, the Department of Labor filed a case against the Tony and Susan Alamo Foundation for violations of federal wage laws, a case that went to the U.S. Supreme Court. The foundation put people in the drug and alcohol rehab program to work without pay at for-profit businesses, including a jean jacket factory, a hog farm and a grocery store. The federal government filed suit, winning a judgment ordering the ministry to pay more than $3 million in unpaid wages and overtime.

    Despite the Alamo lawsuit, the Department of Labor has never succeeded in ending the abuse in the rehab programs.

    As a result of the Reveal report, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Sen. Tammy Duckworth sent a letter on Nov. 20, 2020 requesting the Government Accounting Office investigate mandatory vocational requirements at drug and alcohol rehabilitation facilities that receive federal funding that provide little to no pay for labor. The senators said this practice appears to be a violation of federal labor law, but has escaped federal enforcement.

    “Individuals struggling with substance use disorder who attend rehabilitation programs should never be subjected to predatory conditions that threaten their recovery and violate their rights under the law,” they wrote.

    Nothing has changed since Warren and Duckworth sent the letter.

    In the last two years, the Salvation Army has been hit with wage and hour lawsuits as a result of the renewed attention to the abuse. On May 7, 2021 Bay Area attorneys filed a class action lawsuit against the Salvation Army. The lawsuit notes the Salvation Army operates 15 adult drug and alcohol rehab programs (ARCs) in California and that the cornerstone of these programs is physically grueling and sometimes dangerous “work therapy.”

    The lawsuit alleges one participant was paid a “gratuity” which went from $1 per week to a high of $12 per week in cash, and $12 in canteen cards for work in excess of 40 hours per week—in violation of California and federal law. According to the lawsuit, the Salvation Army earned $598.4 million from its sales at thrift stores in the United States.

    This year, attorneys filed class action lawsuits in federal court in New York, Illinois and Georgia against the Salvation Army for failing to pay participants in their program in violation of wage and hour law. The lawsuits allege participants in the ARCs must relinquish all government assistance including food stamps and that there is little skills training or educational programs, and no support system once the participants leave the program.

    “I participated in the ARC program to gain stability, but it did nothing to set me up for success after I left,” Avery Acker, who was in an ARC in Altoona, Pennsylvania, said in a statement. “Making only dollars a week meant that I left the program in no better shape than I had entered it, meanwhile the Salvation Army got months of my virtually unpaid, full-time labor. I didn’t deserve to be treated this way, and neither do the thousands of workers in ARCs around the country.”

    D. Michael Hancock, former assistant administrator for the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division, told Reveal there’s no real ambiguity about what the law requires.

    “There’s nothing therapeutic about not paying workers,” he said.

    The state and federal labor agencies must step up and enforce the law, and alcohol and drug rehab programs must pay a legal wage to the huge shadow workforce of exploited and vulnerable workers.

    San José Spotlight columnist Ruth Silver Taube is supervising attorney of the Workers’ Rights Clinic at the Katharine & George Alexander Community Law Center, supervising attorney of the Santa Clara County’s Office of Labor Standards Enforcement Legal Advice Line and a member of Santa Clara County’s Fair Workplace Collaborative. Her columns appear every second Thursday of the month. Contact her at [email protected].

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