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Former Prisoners Making Less Than Minimum Wage Working for Nonprofit Doe Fund

It sounds like a good idea: Give jobs to former prisoners and teach them a trade so they can get on their feet. That’s what The Doe Fund says it does, but a closer look shows that the organization’s leaders live cushy, rent-free lifestyles while its workers pay the tab and walk away earning less than minimum wage.

It works like this, according to The Appeal, which reported the story in July 2020. A former prisoner with no place to go ends up in a homeless shelter run by The Doe Fund. In the first month there, they go through “orientation” by cleaning and maintaining the shelter. After that, they get jobs working to “beautify” parts of New York City called business improvement districts (BIDs). They work 35 hours a week (but get paid for only 30 since breaks don’t count) and make minimum wage, which is $15 an hour in New York City. That’s a pretax paycheck of about $450.

The problem starts when The Doe Fund takes its $249 “fee” each week from workers’ checks, leaving them with $201 before taxes. That’s around $6.70 an hour, well below even the federal minimum wage of $7.25. For most other workers in the country, this might be illegal. But for Doe Fund workers, there’s a loophole: They’re not employees but “clients,” and the money is a “training incentive” not a wage. That means the Doe Fund really doesn’t have to pay them, according to the law that applies to normal employees.

It’s not that The Doe Fund relies on the $249 fee it extracts from its workers’ paychecks each week to keep the business running. There are about 410 workers in the program. Instead, the Doe Fund gets its money from the BIDs and a contract with the New York City Department of Homeless Services and other private supporters, some with political ties.

The Doe Fund’s founders, George and Harriet McDonald, each pay themselves $430,000 a year and their son, John, gets a $290,000 annual salary. And they live rent-free: The Doe Fund’s headquarters happens to be the family brownstone on the Upper East Side, which the nonprofit pays for at a cost of $200,000 a year, with Doe Fund workers maintaining the property.

The McDonalds keep close political ties in the city. They donated $250,000 to Governor Andrew Cuomo’s campaign pocketbook, and former Mayor Michael Bloomberg gave The Doe Fund millions in exchange for “van loads” of Doe Fund clients to testify in favor of granting Cuomo a third term as mayor in 2008, according to The Appeal.

Some experts say the abuse happens because the workers are mostly former prisoners. “You’ve got 40 hours of work, but I’m going to take $250 each week. The criminal label lets you do that,” said Reuben Jonathan Miller, assistant professor at the University of Chicago School of Social Services Administration. He called it “carceral citizenship.”

“If this happened with anybody else, you might call it exploitive — but because it’s formerly incarcerated people, not so much. Where are you going to go for a new job? Who are you going to complain to?”

New York State Assemblyman Andrew Hevesi proposed a bill this year that would prevent homeless shelters, like The Doe Fund, from charging rent to its residents. This may prevent the $249 fee the Doe Fund charges its residents.

“It’s feudalism, pure exploitation,” a Doe Fund worker said. “They receive money from the city and private donors, and they take money from us. A thousand dollars a month. Where is it going?” 


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