At Christian Alcoholics & Addicts in Recovery in Oklahoma, people sentenced to drug and alcohol diversion programs worked in a poultry plant for no pay. Credit: Shoshana Walter for Reveal

U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Tammy Baldwin say the unpaid labor that’s an underpinning of hundreds of drug and alcohol rehabs across the country appears to violate federal law and are asking the Government Accountability Office to investigate. 

At least 300 rehab facilities in 44 states require participants to work unpaid jobs in exchange for their stay, enrolling more than 60,000 people a year in the model. While the programs promise freedom from addiction, a yearslong investigation by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting found that the rehabs are often little more than lucrative work camps for private industry. Participants often compare the experience to indentured servitude or even slavery. 

“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,” the Democratic senators wrote in a Nov. 19 letter to the GAO.

Some participants work at businesses run by the rehab, such as thrift stores or car washes. Others work at local businesses. Many have worked for some of the most profitable corporations in the country – Exxon, Shell, Walmart and Tyson Foods. They often work side by side with paid employees, under grueling conditions. The participants often are ordered to attend the rehab by judges as an alternative to prison and face incarceration if they leave the program.

The Fair Labor Standards Act forbids requiring individuals to work without compensation. “This practice appears to be a violation of federal labor law, but has escaped federal enforcement,” said Warren, of Massachusetts, and Baldwin, of Wisconsin. Baldwin is also the ranking member on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee’s employment and workplace safety subcommittee. 

Former labor officials also have said failing to compensate workers is illegal. Yet the Department of Labor, tasked with enforcing the country’s labor laws, has failed to rein in these labor abuses. No government agency tracks the rehab facilities.

The Department of Labor did investigate The Salvation Army for its unpaid labor practices. However, instead of cracking down on the practice, regulators crafted a special carve-out that says investigators can’t levy compliance actions against The Salvation Army without special approval.

Some rehabs have participants sign waivers declaring they are not employees. However, courts have found that employees cannot waive their employee status. 

Warren and Baldwin also cited guidance from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration that said the rehab work model does not appear to be effective in fighting addiction. Instead, the guidance says employment may “be stressful and present many potential triggers for relapse.”

The senators asked the GAO to investigate whether there is evidence showing that working for no pay has any beneficial effect on addiction treatment and recovery, whether federal funds go to rehabs employing this business model, and what oversight exists to ensure that rehab participants are fairly compensated and that programs follow the law. 

The GAO has received the letter and will determine whether to open an investigation in the coming weeks. 

Reveal’s investigation culminated over the summer in an eight-part podcast series, American Rehab, which traced the origins of the model to a 1960s cult. 

Andrew Donohue can be reached at, and Shoshana Walter can be reached at Follow them on Twitter: @add and @shoeshine.   

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Andy Donohue was the executive editor for projects for Reveal. He edited Reveal’s investigations into the treatment of migrant children in government care, Amazon’s labor practices, rehab work camps and sexual abuse in the janitorial industry. He was on teams that have twice been Pulitzer Prize finalists and won Investigative Reporters and Editors, Edward R. Murrow, Online News Association, Third Coast International Audio Festival, Gerald Loeb, Sidney Hillman Foundation and Emmy awards. He previously helped build and lead Voice of San Diego, served on the IRE board for eight years and is an alumnus of the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowship at Stanford University.

Shoshana Walter was a senior reporter and producer at Reveal, covering the criminal justice and child welfare systems. She's working on a book for Simon & Schuster about the failures of our country's addiction treatment system. At Reveal, she reported on exploitative drug rehab programs that require participants to work without pay, armed security guards, and sex abuse and trafficking in the marijuana industry. Her reporting has prompted new laws, numerous class-action lawsuits and government investigations. Her stories have been named finalists for the Pulitzer Prize, Selden Ring and National Magazine Awards. She has also been honored with the Livingston Award for National Reporting, the IRE medal, the Edward R. Murrow award, the Knight Award for Public Service, a Loeb Award and Sigma Delta Chi Award for investigative reporting. Her Reveal podcast, "American Rehab," was named one of the best podcasts of the year by The New Yorker and The Atlantic and prompted a congressional investigation.

Walter began her career as a police reporter for The Ledger in Lakeland, Florida, and previously covered violent crime and the politics of policing in Oakland, California, for The Bay Citizen. A graduate of Mount Holyoke College, she has been a Dart Center Ochberg fellow for journalism and trauma at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and a John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim fellow in criminal justice journalism. She is a fellow with the Watchdog Writers Group at the University of Missouri School of Journalism and is based in Oakland, California.