A national drug rehab program sends patients struggling with addiction to work for free at some of the country's biggest companies

  • An investigation published by Reveal has found that The Cenikor Foundation, a nationally renowned drug rehab program in Texas and Louisiana, has sent patients struggling with addiction to work for free in deplorable conditions at some of the country’s biggest companies.
  • The investigation found that Cenikor has sent tens of thousands of patients to work at more than 300 for-profit companies, including Walmart, Shell, and Exxon.
  • Despite being a rehab program, patients often had little time for counseling and treatment due to the work demands required by Cenikor. Participants also routinely lacked proper safety protocols or training while on the job.
  • Labour experts told Reveal that Cenikor’s business model may be illegal under federal labour law.
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A troubling investigation published this week by Reveal has found that The Cenikor Foundation, a nationally renowned drug rehab program in Texas and Louisiana, has sent patients struggling with addiction to work for free in deplorable conditions in the throngs of some of America’s biggest companies.

Cenikor, which has received praise from sitting lawmakers, judges, and former President Ronald Reagan – despite a less than 8% graduation rate among participants – lures people into its program with a promise that work will help them recover from addiction. They can join by opting to give up their pay to cover the costs of the two-year program.

Reveal found that Cenikor has sent tens of thousands of patients to work at more than 300 for-profit companies, including Walmart, Shell, and Exxon. Many participants work through an illusive network of subcontractors.

Logan Tullier, a former Cenikor participant who worked 10 hour days at oil refineries in sweltering heat, told Reveal the situation as “the closest thing to slavery.”

Ethan Ewers, who was ordered to complete a stint in Cenikor by a judge in Texas after failing a drug test while on probation, told Reveal that he worked for 43 days straight in a warehouse, where the temperature was unbearably hot, unloading cargo containers for Walmart.

And, just last year, Matthew Oates was sent by Cenikor to a private Louisiana residence to trim trees. He wasn’t provided a safety harness, helmet, or rope, and broke his back after falling off a 20-foot ladder. He told Reveal that, to this day, he remains in severe pain and regularly sees a chiropractor.

Walmart said that it planned to investigate in response to the article’s findings. “Our expectations are that all of our vendors follow both the applicable laws and regulations as well as our standards for suppliers,” the company said in a statement.

Illegal under federal law

Labour experts told Reveal that Cenikor’s business model may be illegal under The Fair Labour Standards Act, which requires all employees to be paid minimum wage and overtime. Michael Hancock, a former Department of Labour official, said that people in the program were “being preyed upon.”

While federal labour law does allow Cenikor to deduct costs related to food, lodging, and some other expenses, Reveal found that the nonprofit often brought in far more money from work contracts than it spent on patients. In the process, patients made nothing.

“I can’t fathom this being legitimate,” John Meek, a former Department of Labour wage and hour investigator, told Reveal. “That maths is just against it.”

At job sites, participants routinely lacked proper safety protocols or training – leading to nearly two dozen injuries over the last decade. While Louisiana state law required Cenikor to report injuries, Reveal found that the nonprofit had failed to submit a single injury report to the Louisiana Department of Health over the last three years, despite numerous injuries occurring during that time.

Additionally, and despite being a rehab program, patients often had little time for counseling and treatments due to the work demands required by Cenikor. According to documents, staff often cancelled doctors’ appointments and legal appointments so patients could go to work for free.

Peggy Billeaudeau, who worked as the clinical director of Cenikor’s Baton Rouge facility from 2015 to 2016, told Reveal that she and her staff launched their own investigation in response to the alarming amount of work required for patients. While Billeaudeau found evidence that some patients worked 80-hour-weeks and often never received counseling, she said that top Cenikor officials ignored her findings.

“It was kind of like, ‘Peggy, don’t touch that with a 10-foot pole,’ ” she told Reveal. “It was about the money. Get the money.”

The article acknowledged that many patients did say Cenikor saved their lives and promised resources for success. After 18 months, participants can become eligible to receive wages and graduate with jobs, a car, and other resources. However, the majority of patients never graduate – and hence never receive a paycheck, according to Reveal.

“It was just a money racket,” said former Cenikor patient Alester Williams. “That place was all about manipulation and greed.”

Read the full report here

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