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Labor investigation of New Beginnings finds no violations of law

"We don't apologize for putting those guys to work," says New Beginnings founder and CEO Tom Atchison. "It helps them learn that they've got to be responsible and pay their own way."
"We don't apologize for putting those guys to work," says New Beginnings founder and CEO Tom Atchison. "It helps them learn that they've got to be responsible and pay their own way."
Published Feb. 20, 2015

TAMPA — A federal investigation of New Beginnings of Tampa has concluded the charity did not break labor laws when it put its homeless clients to work without pay in exchange for shelter and food.

New Beginnings founder and CEO Tom Atchison was notified this week by the U.S. Department of Labor that the charity was found in compliance with the Fair Labor Standards Act.

Atchison called the decision vindication and said it removed a cloud of wrongdoing after a series of Tampa Bay Times articles called into question his use of unpaid labor, especially at area sporting events.

"Thank God," said Atchison, who has since agreed to have his clients paid for their work. "This allows us to move on. … We don't apologize for putting those guys to work. It helps them learn that they've got to be responsible and pay their own way."

Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin Beckner, who called for the investigation in December after the Times' articles appeared, stopped short of saying the charity has been completely cleared.

"Regardless of whether they violated specific federal law, it's still questionable that some clients were treated with human dignity and respect," Beckner said. "My expectation of homeless recovery is they help individuals become self-sufficient."

Beckner said he questioned whether New Beginnings was helping itself more than the homeless people it put to work.

The commissioner noted that the county pulled its support of New Beginnings, including the suspension of a $64,000 grant, because of a lack of financial controls and documentation, not because of the Times' articles or the Labor Department investigation.

The county also rejected the charity's bid for a $3.2 million shelter contract. County officials said part of the reason for rejecting the bid was that a financial audit submitted by New Beginnings was signed by a "registered auditor" who wasn't an auditor and said he had never worked on the document.

For years, Atchison sent unpaid homeless labor crews to Tampa Bay Rays, Lightning and Bucs games, the Daytona 500 and the Florida State Fair. In exchange for food and shelter, he has had homeless people work in construction, landscaping, telemarketing, moving, painting, even grant-writing.

Atchison calls it "work therapy" and said he did not track the hours the clients worked. Homeless advocates and labor lawyers told the Times it was exploitative and possibly illegal, though federal labor law grants broad exemptions to charitable groups.

Aramark, the concessions company for Raymond James Stadium, and Centerplate, which handled concessions for the Tampa Bay Rays, ended their relationships with New Beginnings after the Times' articles.

Both companies made commissions-based donations to New Beginnings in exchange for the charity's labor — money that provided a significant portion of New Beginnings' finances. Such arrangements are common in the concessions industry, which often outsources stadium staffing to volunteers working on behalf of nonprofits.

After New Beginnings was let go by those companies, the charity sent its clients to work concessions and clean up at the Outback Bowl and at two Tampa Bay Buccaneers home games. But they worked for All Team Staffing, a company that provides temporary labor, primarily in the food-service and hospitality industries.

All Team Staffing paid the workers directly.

A Labor Department spokesman declined to comment Thursday beyond confirming that investigators ended their inquiry without finding any violations of law. The Labor Department declined to release a copy of the letter it sent to New Beginnings. The charity, however, provided a copy to the Times.

The Labor Department, Atchison said, will eventually send him an eight-page summary of its investigation.

Contact William R. Levesque at (813) 226-3432 or levesque@tampabay.com. Follow @Times_Levesque.