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 adonohue@revealnews.org, and Shoshana Walter can be reached at swalter@revealnews.org. Follow them on Twitter: @add and @shoeshine.   

Andrew Donohue is the deputy editor for Reveal. He works with the audience team to find out what the public needs from – and what it can contribute to – our reporting. Stories Donohue has reported and edited have led to criminal charges, firings and reforms in public housing, pesticide use, sexual harassment and labor practices, among other areas. As a reporter and editor, he’s won awards from Investigative Reporters and Editors, the Society of Professional Journalists, the Online News Association and others. Previously, Donohue helped build and lead Voice of San Diego, a pioneering local news startup. He was a John S. Knight fellow at Stanford University, where he worked on deepening engagement with investigative reporting. He serves on the IRE board of directors. 

Shoshana Walter

Shoshana Walter is a reporter for Reveal, covering criminal justice. She and reporter Amy Julia Harris exposed how courts across the country are sending defendants to rehabs that are little more than lucrative work camps for private industry. Their work was a finalist for the 2018 Pulitzer Prize in national reporting. It also won the Knight Award for Public Service, a Sigma Delta Chi Award for investigative reporting, and an Edward R. Murrow Award, and was a finalist for the Selden Ring, IRE and Livingston Awards. It led to numerous government investigations, two criminal probes and five federal class-action lawsuits alleging slavery, labor violations and fraud.

Walter's investigation on America's armed security guard industry revealed how armed guard licenses have been handed out to people with histories of violence, even people barred by courts from owning guns. Walter and reporter Ryan Gabrielson won the 2015 Livingston Award for Young Journalists for national reporting based on the series, which prompted new laws and an overhaul of California’s regulatory system. For her 2016 investigation about the plight of "trimmigrants," marijuana workers in California's Emerald Triangle, Walter embedded herself in illegal mountain grows and farms. There, she encountered an epidemic of sex abuse and human trafficking in the industry – and a criminal justice system focused more on the illegal drugs. The story prompted legislation, a criminal investigation and grass-roots efforts by the community, including the founding of a worker hotline and safe house.

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. Her narrative nonfiction as a local reporter garnered a national Sigma Delta Chi Award and a Gold Medal for Public Service from the Florida Society of News Editors. 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 based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.