July 19, 2019; Chicago Tribune and the State Journal-Register
Last week, NPQ wrote about Sharon Durbin, the CEO of Land of Lincoln Goodwill who, in a one-woman attempt to forestall an already legislated minimum wage hike in Illinois, announced that rather than raise wages, she would be laying off many of the disabled workers the nonprofit currently employs. The additional financial load, she said, was just too large. In fact, as it turned out, she had already sent a dozen workers with disabilities a letter saying they would no longer receive a paycheck and attributing their layoffs to the minimum wage increase.
In effect, she had used the employment of disabled workers as a pawn in her misguided attempt to try to shame the governor into reversing the new law, something which he could not do. Making matters worse, she essentially suggested that they could go on working—but not for pay.
“As of January 1, 2020, a new minimum wage law takes effect which will increase our payroll cost significantly,” Durbin’s letter reads. “Over the next five years, the added expense will exceed two million dollars if we do not make changes… That means that many of our clients will no longer be working to receive a paycheck but will be involved in some type of learning-based initiative.”
Amid disavowals from other Goodwill chapters and a social media storm of protest. it did not take long for the inevitable apology to “our constituents, our clients and our faithful donors” to follow.
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“Our recent decision regarding the [Vocational] Rehab program and the resulting harm it might have caused falls short of living up to our mission and we apologize for this error in judgment,” said Durbin.
It was worth noting, however, that even though Illinois has now become the first Midwestern state to pass a bill that raises the minimum wage to $15 (phased in over six years, with the minimum wage hitting $15 an hour in 2025), state law in Illinois still permits employers to hire disabled workers at less than the minimum wage, with some disabled workers earning as little as 74 cents an hour. The people Durbin laid off were earning the minimum wage, but local television station WCIA reports that 27 of 50 disabled workers at Goodwill presently earn less than the minimum wage. Durbin told WCIA that her Goodwill chapter hoped to phase out paying disabled workers sub-minimum wages, but she objected to raising the minimum wage to a living wage.
Meanwhile, a separate bill called the Dignity in Pay Act, which would phase out this exemption, is advancing in the state legislature, which would eliminate the sub-minimum wage exemption for hiring disabled workers. As state representative Theresa Mah (D-Chicago), legislative sponsor of the Dignity in Pay Act, explains, “The bottom line is that these are people we’re talking about and paying anyone 74 cents per hour is inhumane.” The bill includes provisions to phase out the sub-minimum wage over time and to compensate nonprofits paying disabled workers the full minimum wage with greater state contract payments.
By Thursday, Durbin had resigned—but not before State Senator Andy Manar (D-Bunker Hill) sent a letter to the Illinois Department of Human Services, the Department of Central Management Services, and Governor J.B. Pritzker calling for a review by state agencies of the contracts and state funding to the organization. And not before Illinois’s two US senators, Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth, publicized a letter they sent demanding information about Goodwill’s finances. In it, they say, “Your actions and statements call into question your judgement, your commitment to the organization’s mission, and your fitness to continue serving in your current leadership role. While we appreciate the Land of Lincoln Goodwill Industries’ willingness to apologize for its harmful effort and reverse course, fixing a manufactured crisis that you created is far from an admirable effort.”—Ruth McCambridge