Senators Warren, Baldwin Ask GAO To Investigate Forced Labor Rehab Programs

01 Dec, 2020 Bruce Burk


Washington, D.C. ( – U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) have asked the General Accountability Office to look into practices at drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs that require participants to work for free.

In a letter from Nov. 23, the two senators wanted the GAO to investigate whether or not the programs used federal grants or federal funds for their rehabilitation programs, to what extent federal funds are used to support these programs and to what extent are individuals being used as “a huge shadow labor market.”

In 2017, Reveal, the Center for Investigative Reporting, found that drug court programs like Christian Alcoholics & Addicts in Recovery (CAAIR) used participants in their rehabilitation program as labor for nearby Simmons Foods chicken processing plants. The organization forced its participants, on threat of returning them to drug courts to face possible convictions, to sign disclaimers that acknowledged they would work for free and to sign away rights to workers’ compensation coverage.

“For example, the CAAIR ‘Disclaimer of Employment Relationship’ form requires program participants to sign a form acknowledging, among other things, that ‘there is no contract of employment between CAAIR, Inc. and myself;’ ‘I do not receive wages and I am not paid for my stay at CAAIR, Inc.;’ and ‘because I am not an employee of CAAIR, Inc., I understand that I have no right to workers’ compensation or to any unemployment benefits,’” the senators wrote in their letter. “CAAIR program participants have reported serious injuries from their work at Simmons Foods, and Reveal found that ‘those who were hurt and could no longer work often were kicked out of CAAIR and sent to prison.’ CAAIR program participants were not paid for their labor, but CAAIR received more than $11 million in revenue over seven years from participants’ work.”

The programs, the senators said, offer little proven therapeutic benefit for the participants, in fact they may be harmful.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), there is little evidence that vocational services in substance abuse treatment settings work, or that there is any long-term effect on a participant’s substance use. SAMHSA has found, however, that mandatory work assignments could be harmful to those in treatment because it increases stress and “present(s) many potential triggers for relapse.” The guidance from SAMHSA provides that any treatment plan should include personalized goals for a program participant that includes “the attainment of good pay.”

Warren and Baldwin said the practice creates a “huge, unpaid shadow workforce,” at companies like Walmart, Williams-Sonoma, the Salvation Army and Tyson Foods, Inc.

The senators asked the GAO to look into what kinds of oversight exists for these programs as well.

“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 letter said. “Federal funding dedicated to supporting individuals and communities navigating substance use disorder must be used in service of evidence-based prevention, treatment, and recovery.” 

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    • Bruce Burk

      Bruce Burk is an experienced workers' compensation defense attorney located in South Florida. He has also worked in civil litigation and criminal defense, handling more than 40 trials, both jury and non-jury. Burk received his law degree from the University of South Carolina and his bachelor's degree from Palm Beach Atlantic University.

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