They arrive every day at Salvation Army centers to break bad habits and start good ones.
Men and women trying to kick drug and alcohol addictions come to receive free counseling for both spirit and body. When they are able, they are put to work at the centers. These "clients," as they are called, paint rooms, sweep floors, clean windows, do whatever needs to be done.
They receive no money for their labor. The Salvation Army has helped them put their lives back on a positive track, the army claims, and that is payment enough.
The Christian charitable organization has dealt this way with clients for much of its 110-year history. But now the federal Department of Labor is ordering the Salvation Army to pay its clients "an appropriate wage." The army has asked the U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Va., to pass a summary judgment prohibiting the government order.
The court is expected to hand down its decision within days.
The Salvation Army says making such payments may force layoffs of some of its 40,000 full-time paid employees. It also may cause the Salvation Army go broke, officials say.
In 36 states, there are 117 centers with about 8,000 beds for men and women with histories of drug and alcohol abuse, says Col. Kenneth Hood, national chief secretary for the Salvation Army. Most clients are male.
The Salvation Army has one 100-bed center for men in Baltimore, at West Patapsco and Gable avenues. Other services are available for men, women and children, though only the centers for substance abusers are affected by the current controversy, says Capt. Roy Sink, administrator of the Baltimore center for men.
The matter has become something of a national cause celebre Columnists have attacked the government for trying to snuff out one of the country's oldest and most efficient "points of light."
Rep. Marge Roukema, R-N.J., of the House labor-management relations subcommittee, labels the government action "mindless bureaucracy at its worst."
"We understand what a paid employee is, and these clients just don't qualify as that," Hood says. "They get room and board, they get medical assistance, they get spiritual counseling. The work therapy they do is part of our balanced program of getting them back on their feet."
He adds, "Frankly, if we were looking for full-time employees, these aren't the kind of people we'd be looking to hire anyway."
The DOL counters that other volunteer organizations pay their clients, and so must the Salvation Army.
"We have asked them to pay an appropriate wage," says DOL spokesman Bob Cuccia. "The Salvation Army is going around saying we want them to pay the minimum wage [$3.80 an hour]. That simply is not true. We only ask that they comply with the Fair Labor Standards Act, which stipulates that workers be paid a fair wage, regardless of physical condition or religious affiliation."
An appropriate wage may be less than $3.80 an hour, says David Cooney, chairman of the DOL Advisory Committee on Special Minimum Wages, a 21-member board that advises the DOL on payment for disabled and student workers.
For example, says Cooney, a client who paints at a Salvation Army center may do only half as much work as a professional painter in the same amount of time. The client, therefore, would be paid half the going rate for professionals. Volunteer organizations often make such arrangements with the DOL's permission.
Cooney also serves as president of the Bethesda-based Goodwill Industries of America, which, he says, pays wages to its client workers. He adds that the tug-of-war between the government and the Salvation Army is "like folklore. It goes back almost as far as the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act back in the late 1930s."
But six years ago, when Cooney first became involved in the DOL advisory committee, the government intensified its efforts to make the Salvation Army pay its clients. That decision was based on complaints the government received from unpaid clients of the Salvation Army and other volunteer and religious organizations, he explains.
"If a person comes off the street in bad shape, you help them. That's an important human service, and I don't denigrate that," Cooney adds. "But if you then say, 'To keep your bed, you'll have to paint this bookcase,' that's not right. People should be paid real money for doing real work."
Arthur Smith, spokesman for the New Orleans-based Volunteers of America, says the organization has paid its client workers for more than 20 years.
"We do comply, it's fair, and it's not a burden to us," Smith says.