Does Goodwill Discriminate against the People It Serves?

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November 12, 2013; Moyers & Company

It appears that despite pending legislation in Congress, petitions boasting 170,000 signatures, and a boycott, organizations like Goodwill Industries are not interested in changing what is being depicted as horrifically unfair labor practices. Currently, a relatively obscure law allows some employers to pay well below the minimum wage to workers who are deemed as less productive then able-bodied workers due to a disability. Once certified, agencies like Goodwill can pay workers with disabilities as little as 22 cents an hour.

Congressman Gregg Harper (R-MS) has introduced the Fair Wages for Workers with Disabilities Act of 2013, which would remove section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), which allows certain employers the right to pay workers with disabilities wages that are substantially below the minimum wage. This legislation is supported by the National Federation of the Blind and others, but it appears stalled for now, and given a less than one percent chance of being enacted.

NFB and the Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN) are trying other tactics. On the Bill Moyers blog page, Bill Vail reports that on October 31, petitions with 170,000 signatures were delivered to Goodwill offices in several locations around the country. This is a second attempt to shame Goodwill, following a largely ignored boycott of their stores last year. NFB and ASAN started the petition at as a tool to keep the pressure on and continue to raise awareness of the issue. Goodwill appears to be largely ignoring the petition, as they did a boycott of their shops sponsored by NFB last year. A spokesperson for Goodwill has said that they have no intention of changing their policies, which offer people with disabilities a chance to work and earn a wage they might not otherwise have.

ASAN was also active in Rhode Island, where the Department of Justice found the state and the City of Providence in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act for segregating workers with disabilities in the workplace and paying them lesser wages than others. The municipality is having to make changes, like “mainstreaming” the employees with disabilities for at least a portion of their day, and paying them competitive wages.

As a side note, in his recent op-ed piece in the New York Times, Paul Krugman comments on how rare it is these days for a Republican legislator to support programs that offer assistance to people who are poor and out of work. He points out that the Tea Party’s founding was on the basis of wanting to make sure that government does not reward the lazy and undeserving. In that light, it is striking that Congressman Harper, a legislator who is known to be extremely conservative and pro-business in his voting, has sponsored a bill supporting people in need. It makes more sense, however, when taken in the context of Congressman Harper’s first-hand knowledge of the challenges and discrimination people with disabilities and their families face every day—Harper’s son has Fragile X Syndrome.

Places like Goodwill believe they are doing the right thing, and doing the best for people with disabilities. But when it is personal, affecting you or someone like you, it begins to look like a paternalistic attitude at best and discrimination at worst. Dr. Marc Maurer, head of the NFB, has said that people in power in this country “tell us that our lives have been improved through this system of government-authorized discrimination, while they collect their six- and seven-figure compensation packages.” —Rob Meiksins

  • Emily

    It would be great if the news media as well as legislators fully understood the issues and challenges involved in helping someone with a physical, cognitive, or learning disability be independent and self-sufficient before they write articles or draft a piece of legislation. It can require considerable support, mentoring, and job coaching to work with someone and help them be successful. In addition, many people with disabilities are not able to work a competitive job in the community – Goodwill gives them the opportunity to work, be paid for their work, and receive services that help them navigate the work world. Its not as cut and dried as the media and others would have you believe, we are all paid a wage for our productivity as we work in a job. The people Goodwill helps receive much more than a job with wages, they receive an array of support services that help them do that job and gain experience, while being productive citizens. Do your research!

  • Donna

    Goodwill employs people to give them purpose and dignity, not income. I live across the street and go into the store everyday. Some of the people working there can not make a meaningful contribution but being there means the world to them. If Goodwill is required to pay minimum wage to these employees, they will have no choice but to stop hiring certain types of workers. Who benefits from that?

    Not everything is about money. Human spirit is more important.

  • Thomas C. Wood

    I am a member of ASAN, and I agree that Goodwill Industries exploits disabled persons as “cheap slave labor”.

    As an Autistic with Cerebral Palsy who has a 4-year engineering degree from Wentworth Institute, back in 2006 the NH State Department of Vocational Rehabilitation for the Disabled was going to dump me into one of Goodwill Industries, Inc’s. “Sheltered Workshops”.

    Anyway, the last “real job” I ever had back in 2001, was in Robotics, where I was an Engineering Technician, working for 5 “Doctorate Level” Engineers.

    I told NHVR to go “hell” with dumping me in a sub-minimum wage slave-labor job, when as an Autistic with Cerebral Palsy, I am a highly trained Engineering Technician with skills in electronic hardware design.

    I say, “shut them down”, and free all those disabled “slaves”…

    Thomas C. Wood,
    Disabled Self Advocate

  • Deb

    My question to this type of legislature is this…will the same below minimum wages also be applied to those able bodied workers whose work is deemed less productive? Equality!

  • Robbin E. Dillon

    As a ‘disabled’ person, I am aware that there are provisions for me to be employed, BUT that there are LIMITS to the amount I am able to earn before it adversely affects my disability income – if ANY employer is making positions available to ‘other-abled’ persons, is anyone considering that the difference in pay rates may have more to do with accommodating the financial needs of the employee, than ‘saving’ the company money?? …..just sayin’…..