Senators Warren and Baldwin Say Rehab Work Camps May Violate Federal Law

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.