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Drug rehab patients demand back wages after being sent to work for free

Former patients of the drug rehab program Recovery Connections Community are demanding  back pay for years of free work they performed as caregivers in adult care homes across North Carolina, according to a new federal lawsuit filed against the program and care homes.

“For years, Defendants have escaped public oversight and accountability in profiting from unpaid labor performed by individuals struggling to overcome substance abuse and addiction,” according to the complaint filed Thursday. Rather than providing drug treatment, the lawsuit said Recovery Connection Community’s purpose was to operate as “a for-profit business by staffing adult care homes and other enterprises with labor.”

The lawsuit comes in response to an investigation by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting which found patients in the program regularly worked more than 80 hours per week in adult care homes without pay, while the program’s founders, Jennifer and Phillip Warren, used the rehab program to fuel a lavish lifestyle.

The two-year residential rehab program near Asheville caters to poor and desperate people struggling with addiction. To pay for their stay, participants must work full-time jobs and surrender their pay. Participants were often sent by courts and probation officers as a condition of their probation. Former participants told Reveal they received little addiction help, instead toiling for long hours at care homes and a chain of Zaxby’s restaurants across North Carolina.

The class action complaint, filed by former participants Kimberly Myris and Andrew Presson, alleges the program and more than half a dozen contracted businesses violated the Fair Labor Standards Act by failing to pay participants for their work.

The businesses paid Recovery Connections a “sub-market rate” for the workers, despite knowing that rehab patients worked long hours and wouldn’t receive any pay for their work, the complaint said. The rates were so low, the complaint said, that they threatened to drive down wages for the entire industry. The businesses also were barred from hiring anyone who left the program early, leaving former participants immediately unemployed.

“The way they’re doing things is not ethical, it’s just not right how people are treated because they’re in a vulnerable position,” Andrew Presson said in an interview.

Presson and Myris said they worked excessive hours and endured months of abuse at Recovery Connections before leaving the program earlier this year. Presson worked 80 to 90 hours a week, while Myris worked an average of 119 hours a week in contract jobs without pay.

In addition to the grueling work schedules, Myris and Presson described squalid conditions and psychological abuse in the rehab program. At one of the rehab’s residences, neither the air conditioner nor heater worked, the water smelled of sewage, and holes in the floor allowed insects and feral cats to roam freely, according to the complaint. Program participants were required to turn over their food stamps to the Warrens, yet never had enough food to eat, Presson and Myris said.

During the program’s group therapy sessions, the Warrens verbally abused Presson “and required his co-residents to surround him in a circle and scream insults at him,” according to the lawsuit.

“Eventually it came to the point — this place is going to drive me nuts and it’s going to make me do something I don’t want to do,” Presson recalled he felt, before leaving the program earlier this year.

Jennifer and Phillip Warren did not respond to requests for comment. None of the contracted businesses responded to calls and emails for comment.

The lawsuit also alleges that Recovery Connections engaged in deceptive business practices by falsely advertising itself as a recovery program without providing “any bona fide substance abuse education, counseling, training, or other professional services,” the complaint said.

The Warrens sought out patients, knowing that their “struggles with substance abuse made them vulnerable to deceptive practices.” The suit also says the Warrens personally benefited from the unlawful labor arrangement, using the money to “fund elaborate vacations to Greece, France, French Polynesia, Puerto Rico, and New Orleans.”

The Department of Labor previously investigated Recovery Connections in 2013 and found that the program violated federal labor law by failing to pay participants minimum wage and overtime. Jennifer Warren refused to pay back wages to participants, but promised labor investigators she would comply with labor law in the future. The department never followed up, and Recovery Connections continued to put patients to work without pay for at least five more years.

At least 10 criminal and regulatory probes have been launched in response to Reveal’s reporting.

Recovery Connections is one of a number of drug rehab programs across the country that requires participants to work for for-profit companies, from chicken processing plants to a Coca-Cola bottling plant in Oklahoma.

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