SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) -- A lawsuit filed Friday in San Francisco Superior Court touched off a potentially far-reaching battle against the Salvation Army, challenging the nonprofit's failure to pay for the work it requires from the individuals in its drug and alcohol treatment programs.
The Salvation Army operates 15 Adult Rehabilitation Centers or "ARC's" throughout California, including centers in San Francisco and Oakland.
Drug- or alcohol-dependent individuals are accepted into the "free" residential program for six months, during which time they are given room and board as well as some individual and group counseling.
The Salvation Army's website states that the program provides "housing, food, counseling, community, and employment as we work to treat the symptoms, and ultimately the root causes, of prolonged alcohol and drug dependence."
However, according to the complaint, the cornerstone of the Salvation Army's rehabilitation programs is 'work therapy" that requires participants to "work for the Salvation Army 40 hours per week--and frequently more."
The work involved can be hard; the recovering addicts work in Salvation Army thrift stores where they bundle, sort and transport clothing and other donated items.
Workers do not get wages but receive a "gratuity," a small amount of cash--as little as $12 a week--plus a "canteen card" or "ducket" in like amounts that can only be redeemed at a Salvation Army canteen.
The amounts received are far below minimum wage.
The lawsuit contends that the individuals performing work therapy are employees under California law and the arrangements violate numerous sections of the California labor code, including sections relating to minimum wage and overtime. The suit seeks to certify a class of all individuals who engaged in work therapy for the Salvation Army in the last four years.
The Salvation Army did not immediately respond to a request Monday for comment on the lawsuit.
The Salvation Army has a storied history. It was originally formed as an "evangelical ministry" in 1865 by a former Methodist minister named William Booth.
Booth adopted the military hierarchy of the British Army to a religious operation -- hence the "army" in the organization's name.
The operation grew from a single site in London to a global enterprise providing charitable services in 130 countries and assisting 23 million Americans annually, according to its website. The organization says that it has 1.5 million members consisting of "officers, soldiers and adherents."
The website sums up: "The Salvation Army exists to meet human need wherever, whenever, and however we can."
Addiction treatment is a significant part of its mission. Some individuals join the program on their own; for others, the impetus to participate is a court order. Both groups are required to provide 40 hours of work per week.
The complaint describes the work as "physically grueling and sometimes dangerous, ranging from sorting through mountains of donated clothing and goods to operating heavy machinery in large warehouses to driving large trucks to pick up donated furniture from homes and businesses to working long hours in the Salvation Army kitchen."
Gay Crosthwait Grunfeld and Michael Freeman are among the lawyers representing the plaintiffs. In an interview Monday, Grunfeld said that said "we appreciate the good that the Salvation Army has done in the world and the homeless shelters. And we support all efforts to help downtrodden people. But you can do that while paying minimum wage."
According to Freeman, the Salvation Army earns nearly $600 million a year from its thrift stores and it couldn't operate them without the work provided by the individuals in treatment.
In Williams v. Strickland, a 1996 decision from the federal appellate court for California, the court rejected an argument that the Salvation Army violated the federal Fair Labor Standards Act by failing to pay wages to people in work therapy. The court's rationale was that the worker was not an "employee" of the Salvation Army because there was no agreement for compensation.
Grunfeld said that Williams is an "old case" and was "wrongly decided," but whether it was or was not, does not matter, in her opinion, because Williams was a federal case construing federal law.
The new suit was filed in state court and relies on California employment law requirements. Freeman said, "There's no cure-people-from-addiction exemption from the California labor code." Grunfeld added, "we also think that California is generally more protective and more rigorous in its protection of employees than federal law."
Freeman and Grunfeld do not have a position on whether the Salvation Army's treatment programs are successful and, according to Grunfeld, "It wouldn't matter from a California labor perspective."
In her view, "the point is you could do a successful program that complied with the law and paid people for their hard work."
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