Shoppers visit a Salvation Army thrift store in Miami. The Salvation Army runs the nation’s largest chain of work-based rehabs, with about 100 programs across the country. Credit: Jeffrey Greenberg/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

A group of five former rehab participants have filed a class-action lawsuit against The Salvation Army, alleging they were not paid for work they performed at the venerated charity.

The Salvation Army is one of the largest providers of drug and alcohol rehabilitation in the United States. Participants typically do not have to pay for a place in the residential program. But once there, the main mode of treatment is what The Salvation Army calls “work therapy” at the charity’s thrift stores, which generate more than $598 million in annual sales.

The lawsuit, filed Friday in San Francisco Superior Court, alleges that the charity violated California labor laws by not treating the workers as employees and failing to pay them minimum wage and overtime. According to the complaint, the participants worked more than 40 hours a week in “physically grueling and sometimes dangerous” jobs. Some picked up donations and worked in warehouses and stores, where they sorted, priced and displayed clothing, linens, shoes, accessories and housewares. Others performed maintenance jobs, repaired goods or operated heavy machinery. In exchange, they received gratuities of between $1 and $25 per week or “canteen cards” they could use to buy soda, chips or other snacks at The Salvation Army canteen.

The program provides room and board to the participants but requires them to sign up for and then relinquish their food stamps, according to the complaint. It also provides other services, such as spiritual counseling, Bible study and recreational outings.

But participants in the programs spent the vast majority of their time working. The charity admits only applicants who can work and routinely kicks participants out of the program if they get sick or injured and are no longer able to work, participants said. Most people do not complete the program, according to the complaint.

The Salvation Army did not respond to multiple requests for comment on the lawsuit. The organization has previously argued that rehab participants are not employees and are therefore not entitled to wages.

Jessica Riggin, one of the attorneys representing the plaintiffs, alleges that the organization is violating labor law by not treating the workers as employees. Whether or not the program helps people is irrelevant, she said.

“There’s no nonprofit exemption to the labor code,” she said. “Even if they do good, that’s not a reason for them to not comply with the law like every other California employer.”

The suit, the attorneys said, was filed in response to an investigation by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting, which found that The Salvation Army is among hundreds of rehab facilities across the country that put participants to work without pay. The federal Department of Labor previously found the charity in violation of labor law in 1990, but after The Salvation Army filed a lawsuit and lobbied federal lawmakers, the federal agency dropped the case. The Labor Department then added specific language to an internal handbook that effectively ended federal enforcement actions against The Salvation Army for wage violations.

The participants are seeking certification as a class and are demanding back wages for work performed by participants at 15 Salvation Army rehab facilities in California over the past four years.

Their attorneys filed the case under the Private Attorneys General Act, a California law that allows private attorneys representing employees to file lawsuits on behalf of the state to recover civil penalties for labor code violations.

This story was edited by Esther Kaplan and copy edited by Nikki Frick.

Shoshana Walter can be reached at swalter@revealnews.org. Follow her on Twitter: @shoeshine.

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.