Oklahoma City says it will take action if federal investigation finds recovery program broke any laws

Attorneys for the city met this week to discuss the Firstep men’s and women’s recovery program in response to a joint investigation by The Frontier and StateImpact Oklahoma.

Firstep’s men’s and women’s campuses sit on rural land owned by the City of Oklahoma City. Recovering addicts from the program work cutting grass and picking up litter for the city. BRIANNA BAILEY/The Frontier
The City of Oklahoma City said it will take action if an ongoing U.S. Department of Labor investigation into the Firstep recovery program finds the program has violated any laws.

Attorneys for the city met this week to discuss the Firstep men’s and women’s recovery program in response to a joint investigation by The Frontier and StateImpact Oklahoma that found the program may have broken labor and workers’ compensation laws.

The program houses people battling addiction in open dormitories, provides them access to 12-step meetings and requires them to work at mostly manual labor jobs. Firstep keeps most of its clients’ wages to pay for room, board and other expenses.

City spokeswoman Kristy Yager would not elaborate on what action the city might take.

The Firstep’s mens’ and womens’ campuses sit on land owned by the city and Oklahoma City has awarded the program more than half a million dollars in federal funding over the past year for expansion, city records show.

Oklahoma City also uses participants from the Firstep program for manual labor such as janitorial work and cutting grass.

The city’s lease agreement with Firstep contains a provision requiring the recovery program to abide by all local, state and federal laws.

Firstep is the subject of an ongoing investigation by the U.S. Department of Labor over how much the nonprofit deducts from its client’s wages for expenses like food and lodging.

The program is still in the process of negotiating a settlement with the Department of Labor, said Connie Schlittler, executive director of OKC Metro Alliance, the nonprofit that runs the Firstep program.

The Frontier and StateImpact also found that Firstep made some of its clients hand over part of their workers’ compensation payments after they were hurt working on a demolition crew, a practice that could violate state law.

The program gave two former clients refunds after The Frontier and StateImpact asked about the practice.

This story was based in part on ongoing reporting by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit investigative newsroom. To learn more about the reporting network and how to get involved, head over to revealnews.org/network.

Further reading

Working for sobriety: Recovery program took some clients’ disability pay

We continue to report on work-based rehabs in Oklahoma who appear to be taking advantage of some of their clients.

Have you worked or been in one you think might have committed wrongdoing? Let us know here and we’ll follow up on it.

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Brianna Bailey

Brianna Bailey grew up in Idaho. Oklahoma is her adopted home. Bailey has covered issues ranging from Oklahoma's strained child welfare system to the slow decline of Oklahoma's rural hospitals. She has walked all the way across Oklahoma City twice, once north-to south via Western Avenue and once via the old U.S. Route 66. Her hobbies are baking and crashing meetings she isn't invited to attend. She holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from The University of Oklahoma. Email her at brianna@readfrontier.com