A well-known addiction rehab nonprofit made money by using its patients as unpaid laborers for companies, including Walmart, Shell and Exxon, an investigation by Reveal claims.
Former patients ‘treated’ at Cenikor’s 12 Texas and Louisiana locations described working 80-hour weeks, or for over 40 days straight, without pay and with little time to eat or sleep – much less to have counseling or therapy.
Cenikor operates on the model that working helps people recover from addiction and sets them up with employment opportunities after completing the program.
Patients pay Cenikor for its services, and Cenikor maintains contracts with companies that need unskilled labor. The rehab in turn puts its patients to work at those companies, unpaid.
Some experts say the arrangement may break federal laws regulating labor practices.
Cenikor is a nonprofit, but its patients are essentially living in ‘work camps for private industry,’ Reveal asserts, and doing on sweltering oil fields, in grueling warehouses and in unsafe conditions that have left one dead and several badly injured.
In Louisiana and Texas, the drug rehab nonprofit Cenikor sends clients to ‘work therapy’ at over 300 companies, including Walmart, Shell and Exxon. Patients do hard, unpaid labor in grueling conditions and have been injured and even killed, a Reveal investigation found
On the rehab’s website, Cenikor president Bill Bailey calls ‘work therapy’ a ‘critical therapeutic and educational activity.’
But patients that did that work described horrible and unhealthy conditions to Reveal.
Logan Tullier worked 10 hours a day of hard manual labor in 115 degree heat for oil refineries.
At Cenikor by court order, Ethan Ewers said he worked for 43 days in a row in a Walmart warehouse.
Matthew Oates was sent to trim trees for a Cenikor partner company, but he wasn’t given a harness, helmet or rope. He fell 20 feet and broke his back.
Larry Hart fell to his death while doing his Cenikor ‘work therapy’ in 1995.
Partners paid Cenikor over $7 million for ‘vocational services,’ according to the rehab’s 2016 tax documents.
And patients say they never saw a dime.
In the US, almost all employees must be paid a minimum wage (currently $7.25 an hour) and must be paid extra for working overtime.
After graduating Cenikor’s program in 1994, Loren Simonis lodged a complaint against Cenikor with the Department of Labor, but the agency never moved on his request for an investigation.
Simonis filed suit but settled out of court.
A 1985 Supreme Court ruling – in a case with eerie similarities to Cenikor’s practices – made it explicitly illegal for nonprofits to put members or clients to work without pay, even if that work was supposed to help rehabilitate them.
Nonprofits like Cenikor could put wages that its clients would have earned toward their room and board, but it isn’t clear that this is Cenikor’s practice.
Cenikor’s use of clients as workers has not been addressed by the courts in any other cases, according to PACER searches.
‘It’s like the closest thing to slavery,’ Tullier told Reveal.
‘We were making them all the money.’
The nonprofit has been warned multiple times that it must provide better training and safety measures for its clients-turned-workers, but it also is not required to report injuries by state law in Texas.
In Louisiana, Cenikor has made no injury reports.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) gives recommendations for treating addiction. Evidence based therapies are broad-ranging in nature, and are fairly open-ended to interpretation.
The agency’s ‘principles of effective treatment’ say that treatment ‘must address the individual’s drug abuse and any associated medical, psychological, social, vocational, and legal problems,’ and advises behavioral therapies and skill-building.
But it does not describe forcing people with misuse disorders to do unpaid work.