Feds crack down - on the Salvation Army

Robert Knight

October 10, 1990|By Robert Knight | Robert Knight,Robert Knight is senior fellow for cultural policy studies at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.

THE Salvation Army -- one of the brightest "points of light" in America's volunteer ranks -- may have to discontinue a program for alcoholics and drug addicts because of federal government interference.

This clash between true compassion and the regulatory mind-set goes beyond the problem of overzealous bureaucrats. It reveals the growing rift between those who help people help themselves and those who believe that only government is capable of helping people. It reveals, in essence, a clash between a culture rooted in traditional American values and one based on the cold, contractual relationships of the bureaucratic welfare state.

The U.S. Labor Department ordered the Salvation Army to pay the minimum wage to more than 50,000 people enrolled in work-therapy programs. Labor officials say the down-and-outers are "employees" covered by the 52-year-old Fair Labor Standards Act. The Salvation Army, which has sued the Labor Department, sees the people correctly as "beneficiaries" in desperate need of spiritual counseling, food, and shelter.

"This has got to be mindless bureaucracy at its worst," said New Jersey Rep. Marge Roukema, the ranking Republican on the House Labor-Management Relations Subcommittee. After TC pressure from Roukema, Labor Secretary Elizabeth Dole temporarily suspended the order on Sept. 23.

Salvation Army officials say they will not withdraw the suit until Labor withdraws the order. So far, Dole has agreed only to negotiate with the Salvation Army while lobbying Congress to amend the law. In a Sept. 25 press release, Dole says: "We will . . . look for ways that rehabilitation centers such as the Salvation Army can function and house the homeless while we protect workers' rights."

This would seem reasonable except for this: The clients are not "workers" or "employees." "These aren't people who came to us looking for a job," says Col. Kenneth Hood, national chief secretary for the Salvation Army. "These are people who came for religious counseling and medical help . . . It's not an employee-employer's relationship at all. We have 40,000 regular employees nationwide. We know the difference."

The Salvation Army has 8,000 beds in its 118 rehabilitation centers nationwide and in Puerto Rico. Clients receive food, shelter, clothing, counseling and spending money for 90 to 120 days and work at non-skilled jobs such as sorting donated toys. If the Labor Department's order is not lifted, the Salvation Army "would fire more people than it hired," says the charity's counsel, William J. Moss. Many of the 7,000 employees who operate the work-therapy program would be let go, Moss said, including truck drivers, counselors, cooks and janitors.

Work-therapy clients interviewed by the Los Angeles Times and Washington Post say they seek spiritual comfort and rehabilitation, not a job. "This was the only way I felt I could get close to God," says a drug addict in Annandale, Va. A client in Los Angeles says of the minimum wage: "It's not what I'm looking for. I'm looking for help."

But some bureaucrats cannot tell the difference between an hourly employee at McDonald's and a desperate alcoholic seeking a shred of dignity. "Congress intended for people who work to be paid," declares Labor spokeswoman Joanna Schneider. "We have to enforce the law."

"They are very honorable people," Samuel D. Walker, acting administrator of the wage and hour division of the employment standards administration, says of Salvation Army officials. "But it's been a long-standing position that they're covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act."

Even if Salvation Army officials give in and jump through the government hoops, the question remains: Why is the Labor Department leaning on the Salvation Army, a religious organization with a spotless record that does the work that most people loathe? By helping millions over the years, the Salvation Army has helped reunite families, lowered the criminal population, and saved taxpayers untold expenditures. According to Fortune magazine, it is one of the most efficient charities in the nation.

The Salvation Army flap is unfortunately not an isolated assault on common sense. Bureaucrats at many levels appear to be working overtime to discourage voluntarism in America. In New York, for example, Mother Teresa was forced to abandon plans to convert two buildings into homeless shelters because the city ordered her group to pay for an elevator for the handicapped. The nuns, who carry the handicapped as part of their service, spent $100,000 on repairs before canceling the project.

Government at all levels should get out of the way of those who help others. And Elizabeth Dole should order the Labor Department to leave the Salvation Army alone to do its vital work. A legislative amendment is a good idea. Helping the Salvation Army to comply with meddlesome regulations is not.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.