Former patients of the drug rehab program Recovery Connections Community are demanding back wages for years of working for free as caregivers in adult care homes and other companies. Recovery Connections is one of a number of rehab programs across the U.S. that requires participants to work for for-profit companies. The class action complaint comes in response to an investigation by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting which found the program’s patients turned employees regularly worked more than eighty hours per week without compensation, while the founders, Jennifer and Phillip Warren, lived a lavish lifestyle.
“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. The lawsuit claimed Recovery Connection Community’s purpose was to operate as “a for-profit business by staffing adult care homes and other enterprises with labor.”
The two-year residential rehab program near Asheville, North Carolina, is designed for 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.
“I am extremely concerned about the allegations against Recovery Connections,” said Attorney General Josh Stein. “Effective treatment is critical for people with substance use disorder. The idea that people coming to a program for help were victimized instead is sickening, as is the potential of elder abuse.”
Past participants Kimberly Myris and Andrew Presson filed the lawsuit, stating the program and surrounding businesses who contracted labor from the facility violated the Fair Labor Standards Act by failing to pay employees. The businesses paid Recovery Connections a “sub-market rate” for their participants, according to the filing. The rates were so low they threatened to drive down wages for the entire industry.
“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,” Presson said. He worked 80 to 90 hours a week, while Myris worked an average of 119 hours a week in contract jobs without pay.
Myris and Presson also described unsanitary conditions and psychological abuse in the rehab. At one of the residences, neither the air conditioner nor heater worked, the water smelled of sewage, and holes in the floor allowed insects and feral cats to enter the facility. Program participants were required to turn over their food stamps to the Warrens, yet never had enough food to eat. During group therapy sessions, the Warrens verbally abused Presson “and required his co-residents to surround him in a circle and scream insults at him.”
“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.
The lawsuit also stated that Recovery Connections engaged in deceptive business practices and did not provide “any bona fide substance abuse education, counseling, training, or other professional services.” The owners sought out patients because their “struggles with substance abuse made them vulnerable to deceptive practices.” They used their profits 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 employees minimum wage and overtime. Jennifer Warren refused to pay back wages to participants but promised investigators at the time she would comply with all applicable laws in the future. This is the first time a follow-up has been conducted.