The truth about Wreaths Across America
Wreaths Across America is a non-profit organization that places wreaths on the graves of military veterans. It's a simple gesture that has proven popular. Wreaths Across America placed 33,000 wreaths in 2007, its first year. This year, the organization expects to place 2.9 million wreaths at 4,225 cemeteries across all 50 states, a spokesperson for the organization tells Popular Information.
According to Wreaths Across America, wreath-laying is a "simple act of gratitude" that "brings together communities and supports local veterans and military families." But while the wreaths provide symbolic support for veterans and military families, the overwhelming majority of the over $30 million raised in the fiscal year that ended in June 2022 goes to Worcester Wreath Company, which produces the wreaths.
Wreaths Across America was founded in 2007 by members of the Worcester family, owners of the Worcester Wreath Company. The creation of the Wreaths Across America occurred around the same time that Worcester Wreath Company lost its contract with L.L. Bean, which accounted for 90% of Worcester Resources' wreath sales. Rob Worcester, a co-owner of Worcester Wreath Company, said that the loss of L.L. Bean's business following a legal dispute left the firm "in dire straights." The wreath-laying charity, he said, "allowed us to get our feet back under us." Rob Worcester's wife is a member of the Wreaths Across America board.
By 2018, according to reports, Wreaths Across America provided between 75-80% of the company's revenue. Last year, Wreaths Across America collected over 50% more revenue than it did in 2018.
Wreaths Across America has benefited from years of consistent promotion on Fox News. On December 15, 2022, for example, Karen Worcester, the Executive Director of Wreaths Across America, appeared on The Story with Martha McCollum:
MCCOLLUM: Gold and blue star families, volunteers and veterans will make stops all along the east coast, before arriving at Arlington National Cemetery on December 17th for the National Wreaths Across America Day.
Here now is Karen Worcester, the Executive Director for Wreaths Across America. Karen, great to have you back on the program. This is a group that we support and have given a donation to in the name of the staff here at The Story. We are thrilled to put wreaths on the cemetery headstones of many of these veterans. It`s a beautiful tribute. Tell us a little bit about the -- about -- what you`re about to begin doing all the way down the east coast.
KAREN WORCESTER: Well, there`s been a lot of preparation, Martha. Thank you for having me on and for supporting the mission. There`s been a lot of preparation year round. A lot of people don`t know where a year round mission to remember on their teaching, from this little community in Washington County, Maine, over 600 trucks who come in to gather up wreaths, to take to over 3,700 locations, so not just Arlington. And shout out to all the volunteers.
Worcester did not mention that her husband, Morrill Worcester, was both the founder of Wreaths Across America and the co-owner of Worcester Wreath Company. Morrill Worcester also regularly appears on Fox News. Although his background in the wreath industry is occasionally mentioned, he does not disclose that Wreaths Across America purchases all the wreaths from his company.
In fiscal year 2022, $20,605,527 of the money raised by Wreaths Across America went directly to Worcester Wreath Company. Most of the rest of the funds went to marketing, overhead, and staff salaries.
In 2015, the Worcester Wreath Company said it sold the wreaths to Wreaths Across America for $8.50, earning a $1.20 profit on each wreath. If that profit margin has held, this year's wreath laying will earn the company $3,480,000.
Initially, the Wreaths Across America Board of Directors decided that "Worcester Wreath would continue indefinitely as sole supplier unless outside board members determined it didn’t offer a 'reasonable and fair price.'"
Beginning in 2017, Wreaths Across America began soliciting a "request for proposals" (RFP) every three years to supply wreaths. Several members of the non-profit board who are also employees of Worcester Wreath Company, along with Karen Worchester, are formally recused from this process. This, Wreaths Across America says, ensures that "Wreaths Across America receives the most advantageous terms in it's [sic] purchase of wreaths to further it's [sic] charitable purpose."
But for the first RFP, Worcester Wreath Company was the only company that submitted a proposal. "We have certain standards that we look for and for other [companies] to follow that would be difficult,” board chair Wayne Hanson said. Worcester Wreath Company has also won all subsequent RFPs.
A spokesperson for Wreaths Across America maintains the organization also helps "living veterans." The primary mechanism, the spokesperson said, is through the "Pay Back Group program." Under that program, other non-profits can sell sponsored wreaths on behalf of Wreaths Across America. For every $17 wreath sold, the partner organization gets "paid back" $5 by Wreaths Across America. The total amount of these payments in fiscal year 2022 was just $3,046,486. And not all of that money went to veterans organizations. Boy Scouts, 4-H Clubs, and many other non-veteran groups participate.
Nevertheless, Wreaths Across America has managed to secure some of the largest companies as sponsors. According to the group’s 2022 Annual Report, American Airlines, Chevrolet, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Tyson Foods, Truist, and Walmart each contributed more than $100,000 to the organization. Notably, some of Wreaths Across America’s board members work at these companies: Board Member Patrick Simmons is the Senior Vice President of Transportation at Tyson Foods and Board Member Jenny Lovering is the General Manager for Walmart Transportation.
The report also listed the following companies, among others, for contributing amounts ranging from $5,000 to $75,000: Comcast, Raytheon, Norfolk Southern, USAA, Bank of America, Bristol Myers Squibb, Cox, Deloitte, Farmers Insurance, KPMG, Nestle, and T-Mobile.
The conflicts inherent to Wreaths Across America's operation were a source of controversy earlier in its history. The organization flatly rejected these critiques. "To date, each opinion piece where the relationship and integrity of the organization and Worcester family is brought into question is based on misinformation and innuendo," Wreaths Across America declared in a now-deleted section of its website.
Worcester's history of labor violations
The Worcester Wreath Company also has a record of workplace safety and labor violations. In May 2022, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) fined the company $11,500 in connection with a COVID outbreak that left one employee dead and more than 80 workers sick.
According to records obtained by the Maine Monitor, the company failed to report the wreath worker’s death to OSHA within the required eight hours. It also did not “conduct contact tracing to determine who she had been in contact with.” In addition, an OSHA investigator found that–even after the outbreak–the company refused to enforce its mask policy “despite the CDC’s warnings and guidance regarding the usage of masks in close quarters.” The official concluded that the company’s response was “an act of simple indifference” and pointed out that Worcester Wreath Company had received prior citations in 2017 and 2019 for “failing to maintain illness and injury records.”
“This standard has always been a very-back burner issue for the employer as seen in its prior violations and in the manner it has dealt with the citations with OSHA,” the official wrote.
Worcester Wreath Company received reporting violations again in 2023. In March and April, OSHA imposed $24,000 in penalties against Worcester Wreath for “two reporting violations.” The bulk of this amount, about $22,000, was for “failing to publicly post a report on work-related injuries and illnesses earlier this year” the Maine Monitor reports. Similar to the COVID penalty, this incident was deemed a “willful violation,” meaning that investigators found that the company was acting with “purposeful disregard” or “plain indifference.”
In 2018, the U.S. Department of Labor ordered the company to pay “$55,654.16 in back wages to 95 employees” to resolve overtime violations. The same year, seasonal migrant workers at the company have also claimed that they were subject to “repeated sexual harassment by a crew boss contracted by Worcester Wreath Company.” The workers allege they were fired and kicked out of employer-owned housing for raising these concerns.
The dire needs of living veterans
While Wreaths Across America solicits tens of millions of dollars to put wreaths on tombstones, living veterans have acute unmet needs.
Research shows that since the 1980s, veterans “have been overrepresented in homeless populations.” While this number has been halved since 2010, it is still “somewhat more common for veterans to experience homelessness than for all people in the United States,” the Department of Housing and Urban Development reported in 2022. There are several charities taking this issue head-on, including U.S. Vets, which provides "housing, counseling, career development" to veterans and their families who are experiencing homelessness.
Many veterans, particularly post-9/11 troops, are also disabled. The Cost of War Project at Brown University finds that troops who served in Iraq and Afghanistan make up “only 24 percent of all living veterans,” but account “for more than half of the severely disabled veteran population in America.” The group estimates that more than one million “post-9/11 veterans have significant disabilities.” Charities like Wounded Warriors Family Support provide direct services to wounded veterans and their families.
Veterans are also more likely than civilians to suffer from PTSD, which is associated with an increased risk of suicide. In 2020, the suicide rate for veterans was 57.3% more than for the general population. The Head Strong Project, among other groups, provides "confidential, barrier-free, and stigma-free PTSD treatment." Total contributions to the Head Strong Project in 2022 were $19,923,972, ten million dollars less than the contributions to Wreaths Across America.