News 13 Investigates: Asheville charity at center of federal complaint over service hours

Court documents show it could be this time, next year before a federal judge brings the case to trial.  (Photo credit: WLOS Staff)

A local charity tasked with helping homeless veterans get back on their feet is now at the center of a federal complaint. The complaint alleges the program is requiring veterans to work without getting paid in exchange for access to federal benefits.

News 13 investigated the nationwide program called the Grant and Per Diem program run by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs .

The program is funded by the VA, and provides $2.4 million annually to Asheville Buncombe Community Christian Ministries for administration of the program locally. First at Blue Ridge also receives funding and runs the program from its facility. Between the two local charities, they served 314 homeless veterans in 2016. But it's up to the charity how the program is run, and that is what one local veteran is now taking to court.

At 62, Greg Armento never expected to be back in a classroom, building on graphic arts skills at Asheville–Buncombe Technical Community College.

“Working on a fine arts degree and that's my salvation,” said Armento.

And explaining his art, to other students.

“The push and pull, the give and take of where the gray values were,” Armento said, describing his latest drawing.

Armento knows gray. Two years ago, nearly penniless, he qualified for the Grant and Per Diem program for homeless veterans at the Veterans Restoration Quarters run by Asheville Buncombe Community Christian Ministries.

“If there's a path in front of me that leads to my future, I pursue it,” explained Armento.

The program's purpose, according to the VA’s description, is "helping homeless veterans achieve residential stability, increase their skill level, and or income ..." ABCCM receives nearly $1,400 per veteran per month to house, feed and prep veterans for work. Working with approximately 140 veterans in the program annually, ABCCM received about $2.4 million annually.

“They gave me a job to work at the front desk as an ABCCM employee,” said Armento.

But, for the last year, Armento's questioned a part of that program -- the charity's service hour requirement -- after being told not to record some hours he worked.

“I was barred from recording hours between Monday through Friday between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. in the afternoon,” said Armento.

Documents reviewed by News 13 show residents at ABCCM are required to perform service hours, or unpaid labor, in exchange for room and board.

“Service hours are required, and if you don't do them then you start accruing strikes,” Armento said, explaining the program.

Here's the policy:

But when News 13 investigated, we found ABCCM’s service hour requirement is not a requirement of the federal program or other Grant Per Diem programs in neighboring states. VA officials said they oversee the program with a liaison embedded at ABCCM but have no authority to manage the program.

“I found myself working more than 40 hours but not getting a paycheck for the hours that I put in,” said Armento.

Armento's records show during one pay period he recorded as many as 43 hours but was paid for just 16. Over the two years at the VRQ, he claims ABCCM owes him for 293 hours.

Here's a copy of Armento's complaint:

Because of the federal complaint ABCCM declined comment. In its filing in response to the federal complaint, the organization denies Armento's claims and at one point call the service hours voluntary.

Here's ABCCM's response:

News 13 was granted access inside the program to talk with veterans, including David Wright.

“I had really nothing,” said Wright.

Without a job, Wright stressed the importance of a service hour routine.

“If I wasn't here, honestly, I don't know what I'd be doing,” said Wright.

Wright prefers to work security to pots and pans in the kitchen, but sees the task as a building block toward a full-time job. He didn’t mind working service hours.

“This is a way of giving back for what they're giving me,” said Wright.

Army veteran Robert Johnson believes vets get out of the per diem what they put in.

“It's called giving back, you know. The service hours, it wasn't a problem to me, you know, not doing it. Really, it was preparing me to go back to work,” said Johnson.

Johnson needed some aid cleaning up his finances, and counseling offered through the per diem program helped.

“I try to put back mostly all of it if I can,” Johnson said about his paycheck from an outside Buncombe County employer.

Getting a second-shift job has put him on a road to stability. Johnson’s working to secure a place of his own and talked about what it takes.

“Your utilities bills, your first month and last month’s rent. It's kind of expensive here in Asheville,” said Johnson.

Armento claims it's tougher for vets to have stability if ABCCM pays for only a portion of the work.

Now that his time in the program's expired, he's pursuing a labor complaint through the N.C. Department of Labor, in addition to a ruling from a federal jury for others fearful to speak out about what he calls the exploitation of veterans.

“So, any other veteran that's had to work unpaid labor can go to the courts and seek a remedy, get paid for their labor,” said Armento.

Before filing the federal complaint Armento reached out to Sen. Thom Tillis’ office, who made an inquiry on his behalf to the VA. People in Tillis' office said they believed the issue to be a Department of Labor matter.

Armento said reached out to the U.S. Department of Labor and the North Carolina State Labor Department, but got the run around. The U.S. Department of Labor urged Armento to contact state labor officials.

Officials at the Department of Labor admitted they’d received a complaint and performed some background research on ABCCM. Labor officials, however, also said, “We do not have sufficient information to determine the existence of an employee-employer relationship.” For that reason, they say they can’t proceed.

Armento showed News 13 emails exchanged with the labor department that included pay checks from ABCCM. He’s contacted labor officials again, allowing them to use his name in the complaint now that he’s no longer living under ABCCM’s roof.

When News 13 askeded the NC Department of Labor if an employee-employer relationship existed could someone be asked to work and not be compensated, officials said, "Per our Legal Affairs Division, if an employee-employer relationship exists, then an employee would have to be paid for any work performed. However, 'furnishing employees with board, lodging, or other facilities' may also be considered a part of wages paid," and pointed us to the NC Wage & Hour Act and the Federal Fair Labor Standards Act.

VA officials said they do not turn their back on any veteran. When ABCCM failed to offer Armento a requested extension to the program, since he was at the end of the two-year limit and the federal courts failed to grant a stay in the matter while the issue is before the court, the VA helped Armento secure temporary housing through the HUD-VASH program.

A Pell Grant helped him afford to enroll in classes this semester at A-B Tech as he looks for permanent housing and employment.

Court documents show it could be this time next year before a federal judge brings the case to trial.

The Grant Per Diem program isn't the only veteran service program run by ABCCM. It also runs the Steadfast House for female veterans.

The charity provided News 13 with an approximate breakdown of some of the programs housed at the Veterans Restoration Quarters, which is the men's quarters. According to ABCCM, its has about 140 beds for the Grant Per Diem program. There are about 15 beds reserved for veterans discharged from the VA hospital but who may still need some care or assistance with their recovery. There are 50 beds set aside for bridge housing -- veterans who maybe waiting for housing through the HUD-VASH program, which also provides housing assistance for veterans. There are about 160 beds reserved for what ABCCM calls transitional housing needs. It also has beds available for non-VA care for the homeless in the community and 36 beds for emergency shelter needs during inclimate weather.

ABCCM also provides services to Veterans of the Carolinas through its Homeless Veterans Re-integration Program (HVRP) and Supportive Services for Veterans Families (SSVF), which serves veterans in 26 counties from Charlotte to Murphy with homeless prevention and rapid rehousing.

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