Does Goodwill exploit disabled workers by paying them pennies per hour? That’s what an online petition claims. Goodwill says that it offers disabled workers opportunities they may not otherwise have.
A change.org petition, created by the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, seeks to change the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act in which certain employers such as Goodwill are able to pay disabled employees less than the federal minimum wage, which is currently $7.25 an hour. The petition has gathered over 170,000 signatures.
Addressed to several Goodwill executives, the text of the petition reads:
I’m writing to tell you that I will not be supporting Goodwill Industries or any of its affiliates until such time as you stop paying disabled workers less than minimum wage. Workers with disabilities deserve to be subject to the same labor law protections as the general population. Despite paying disabled workers in your affiliates well below the federal minimum wage, Goodwill compensates its executives handsomely. If you can afford multi-million dollar executive compensation packages, you can afford to do right by your workers. Until you do, don’t expect my donations or my business.
An episode of “Rock Center” with Brian Williams aired on June 21, 2013 and highlighted the debate regarding Goodwill’s policies for hiring disabled workers. The segment focused on the impact of subminimum wages of some employees, and the disparity between these workers and Goodwill CEO’s who make six figures per year.
“I wouldn’t pay anybody a subminimum wage because I’m not willing to tell people day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year that they’re not worth it.” Dr. Marc Maurer, President of the National Federation of the Blind stated. Maurer is seeking to ban sheltered workshops completely.
The NBC story compared subminimum wages of disabled employees with the yearly salaries of regional Goodwill CEO’s, pointing out that 6 of these CEO’s make over $400,000 per year. The highest paid Goodwill CEO made $1.1 million in 2011. The tax-exempt, non-profit corporation makes about $5 billion per year and receives hundreds of millions of dollars in government funding.
Ari Ne’eman, President and co-founder of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, told NBC, “It is unquestionably and clearly exploitation.” He added, “They’re able to collect charitable donations. They’re able to present themselves as doing good work. And yet they don’t have to do right by their workers.”
Jim Gibbons, president and CEO of Goodwill Industries International, answered some of the criticisms. Regarding the subminimum wages,h e stated that “everything’s focused on the individual, their goals, their skill sets, and their abilities.” Gibbons points out that Goodwill gives many disabled workers a chance for employment that they would not otherwise have. “It’s typically not about their livelihood. It’s about their fulfillment. It’s about being a part of something. And it’s probably a small part of their overall program.”
Goodwill employees about 110,000 workers, with Gibbons said around 7500 of those are disabled and are paid below minimum wage.
$0.22 an hour
Both the change.org petition and the NBC video point out wages as low as 22-cents an hour. Several other wages below $1 an hour were also noted. The hourly rate is determined by a metric which compares the rate at which the disabled employee works in comparison to an established rate at which a non-disabled person can perform the same task. Ari Ne’eman referred to the metrics used to determine wages as “somewhat arbitrary.”
Goodwill does have its share of defenders, including disabled employees and their caretakers. There are those who defend the charity’s policy of subminimum wage salaries, pointing out that some employees are hired by Goodwill despite an inability to compete with the productivity of other workers. Some of their arguments include:
- Supervision – Additional supervision is required of some disabled employees, thus costing Goodwill the wages for the supervisors to spend increased time with these workers.
- “Token” pay for unemployable – The subminimum wage can be considered in some cases a “token” pay to a mentally or physically challenged person who are often in the care of someone else, and who would otherwise be considered unemployable. A job allows these individuals a chance to be a part of society in a way they otherwise would not have.
- Consequences of change – Some have suggested that if the existing laws were changed, Goodwill would simply stop hiring disabled workers completely, or may be more selective in those disabled workers they do hire.
In a series of responses to criticisms, Goodwill answered many of the accusations in recent media reports. Regarding the “loophole” mentioned in the Brian Williams piece, Goodwill responded, “The Certificate is not a “loophole.” The Certificates are issued by the U.S. Department of Labor as an intentional policy specifically designed to create vocational opportunities for people with disabilities who otherwise would not have them.”
In response to calls to eliminate the Special Minimum Wage Certificate portion of the Fair Labor Standards Act, Goodwill claims that “eliminating this program would harm – not help – people with significant and multiple disabilities.”
In another published response, Goodwill takes on the change.org petition, stating that, “The petition takes isolated incidences of a few workers under the certificate and implies that they are typical for Goodwill….we can say that this level of pay is extremely atypical for Goodwill.” This response also states that disabled workers earn on average $7.47 an hour at Goodwill.
The organization posted a video featuring their 2012 Achiever of the Year, Jim Barnette, a worker from Portland, Oregon who has several disabilities. It included a thank you message from Barnette’s sister to Goodwill.
Harry Smith, at the end of the Brian Williams segment, summarized the debate, “On some levels it’s so black and white and on other levels it certainly is gray. For the family member of a disabled person who finds some way to get more self-meaning in their life by being able to get a job at a sheltered workshop, that may be really profound. It may be a life changing and life enhancing experience. But from these disabled advocates, they say that model is out of date. That goes back to a different time in our country and it’s time to get into the 21st century.”
Is Goodwill being attacked for creating opportunities for disabled people? Or is the company taking advantage of these challenged individuals while raking in millions for its executives?
- Does Goodwill Industries Exploit Disabled Workers? (Susan Adams, Forbes: July 30, 2013)
- Special Message from Goodwill’s Director of Mission Strategy (Brad Turner-Little, Goodwill: July 30, 2013)
- For Goodwill’s Disabled Workers, Spotlight Is on Subminimum Wage (Bruce Vail, Moyers & Company: November 12, 2013)
- Goodwill Industries International: Pay Disabled Workers a Real Wage (Change.org)
- Meaningful Work for People with Disabilities (Goodwill)