We are in the midst of the deadliest overdose crisis in American history.

Some 2 million Americans struggle with opioid addiction; another 18 million are addicted to alcohol or other drugs. Yet very few – less than 1 in 10 – get treatment.

Those struggling with addiction face not only an uphill battle to recovery, but also a treatment landscape rife with danger. Evidence-based treatments have become a luxury for the few. Scarcity has spawned a cottage industry of private rehab centers plagued by unproven approaches and predatory business practices.

I became aware of a hidden sector of this booming industry when I stumbled across a program that operated more like a temp agency than a rehab.

Treatment there consisted primarily of sending participants to work full time at chicken processing plants, where they slaughtered chickens and sorted their parts for Walmart, Popeyes and KFC. Work conditions were dangerous, injuries were frequent – and the participants weren’t paid.

The revenue – $2 million in 2017 – went directly to the rehab.

It struck me as a uniquely American approach: punitive and profit-driven. A model that could have emerged only in a nation where rehab programs are often unregulated and underfunded and enforcement of labor laws is lax. Where addiction has been viewed as a moral failing that can be cured by hard work and sacrifice.

I set out with reporter Amy Julia Harris to uncover whether this unpaid rehab workforce was the only one. We found rehab participants working at assisted living facilities, fast food restaurants and oil refineries. At Walmart, Shell and a Coca-Cola bottling plant. And we discovered that thousands of people are caught up in this system each year – desperately seeking an addiction cure within the ranks of a shadow unpaid workforce.

– Shoshana Walter

Credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

At hundreds of rehabs, recovery means work without pay.

Reveal has identified at least 300 rehab facilities in 44 states that have required participants to work without pay. One of these facilities, The Jericho Project, has sent participants to work full time at some of the country’s largest firms, including Williams Sonoma.

Credit: Scott Olson/Getty Images

They worked in sweltering heat for Exxon, Shell and Walmart. They didn’t get paid a dime.

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.

Credit: Nancy Pierce for Reveal

She said she’d free them from addiction. She turned them into her personal servants.

Rehab participants in Jennifer Warren’s drug rehabilitation program worked 16 hours a day for no pay at adult care homes for the elderly and disabled.

Credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Inside a judge’s rehab, there was unpaid work at a local Coca-Cola plant.

Southern Oklahoma Addiction Recovery, started by retired Oklahoma Judge Thomas Landrith, sent defendants to work full time for free at a local Coca-Cola bottling plant.

Credit: David Zorrakino/Europa Press via Getty Images

They thought they were going to rehab. They ended up in chicken plants.

At Christian Alcoholics & Addicts in Recovery, men worked full time at Simmons Foods Inc., where they process chickens for some of America’s largest retailers and restaurants, including KFC.

For more reporting on work rehabs, listen to our serial podcast.


News & Documentary Emmy Awards
2020 nominee, outstanding business, consumer or economic report

Selden Ring Award
2018 finalist

Gerald Loeb Awards
2020 finalist, video

Sigma Delta Chi Awards
2017 winner, independent investigative reporting

Pulitzer Prize
2018 finalist, national reporting

Investigative Reporters & Editors
2017 finalist, large radio

Cover photo illustration by Gabriel Hongsdusit/Reveal