formulanone from Huntsville, United States [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

July 17, 2019; WQAD-TV (Quad Cities, IL) and WCIA (Champaign-Urbana, IL)

NPQ has seen a number of stories surface recently about the practice of paying some workers with disabilities less than minimum wage. Here are two from Illinois alone.

Nonprofits with section 14(c) certificates, which are issued at the federal level, are allowed to pay a pittance, but the practice is supposed to be tightly regulated by the US Department of Labor and is considered by many to be antiquated.

One organization in Illinois now finds itself in violation of those standards and will be required to pay 215 employees a total of $574,000 in back wages as part of a settlement that was agreed upon after the organization was found in violation of their certificate, which they subsequently lost.

Self Help was found in violation of their Section 14(c) certificate back in April of 2018. Among other things, it hid the work done to avoid paying and sometimes paid employees in gift cards. Because of the violations, the organization lost their certificate, and are now required to pay minimum wage.

“Self Help Enterprises’ pay practices denied employees with disabilities the wages they rightfully earned,” said Wage and Hour Division Administrator Cheryl Stanton. “As a result of the investigation and actions in this case, this employer has agreed to correct all violation issues and to pay these workers the back wages they deserve.”

This is not the first time we’ve seen such audits issue the same kinds of findings, even down to the gift cards. In April of last year, we published a similar story from Seattle.

Also in Illinois this week, the CEO of Land of Lincoln Goodwill threatened to cut workers with disabilities from its payroll, apparently in a one-woman protest of the state’s minimum wage hike, which will gradually increase the minimum wage to $15/hour by 2025.

Sharon Durbin reportedly wrote that over the next five years, the organization would have to pay its workforce an additional $2 million and then she complains that the state does not cover the full cost of the program. The organization employs 400.

Durbin said that the program “really was not a job. It was a work component, and through it, we gave them through grace out of our budget to pay them so they had a paycheck to go home with,” according to WCIA. In other words, from Durbin’s perspective, working for Land of Lincoln was a “job” the same way that professional wrestling is a “sport”—only in this case, the marks are the ones doing the labor.

Loni Braun, whose 28-year-old autistic son Nick worked for the Goodwill location on Wabash Street, called the nonprofit’s decision “an atrocity.”

“My son has worked for Goodwill for six years,” she said. “He started at $8.25. He left at $8.25. So, he has never had a raise. The minimum wage is going to go up I believe a quarter, but not until January. So, they are not raising it to the $15 until the year 2025.”

“They say it is to help our mission,” Braun’s mother said. “But what is the mission now? That is what we are trying to find out. They have gotten rid of most of the people with disabilities. What are they doing with all those donations?”

Durbin finally reversed her decision, but not before she wrote that she has been vilified.

“We are being viewed as this awful organization that is removing jobs from people with disabilities and that’s not true,” Durbin said to WCIA. “It is going to impact us all. Gas prices are going to rise, grocery prices are going to rise. Jobs are going to be lost. Look at your Wal-Mart, your Meijers, your Schnucks. They are doing away with real people checking you out and they are doing more to go in the line of automation. Why is that? Because they don’t want—or can’t afford in their business model—to start paying everyone who walks in the door $15 an hour. They can’t. So what are they going to do? They start eliminating jobs because that is the first line of defense.”

She went on to try to guilt trip Gov. Pritzker into dumping the minimum wage, which is not within his power: “The governor can make anything happen,” she said. “If he’s a governor—which I hope he is—that truly is listening to the people that he serves, because he is a servant, then he will stop and say, ‘Wait a minute, I did not realize I was doing this to people with disabilities, and I didn’t realize it was going to cripple our businesses out there.’”

A spokesperson for Goodwill nationally released a statement clarifying that Durbin speaks only for the Land of Lincoln Goodwill Industries (and perhaps not even that).

Land of Lincoln Goodwill Industries is one of 158 community-based 501c3 Goodwill organizations that provide employment placement, job training, and support services to people in their local communities within North America. Each local Goodwill makes its own operating decisions for its career centers, stores, and donation centers.

Mary Boland of Goodwill of the Finger Lakes in upstate New York released a statement of her own on Tuesday:

Each Goodwill in the United States is independently run. This situation is unfolding in Springfield, Illinois. Goodwill of the Finger Lakes pays all of our employees, including those with disabilities the New York State minimum wage or above. In the past 5 years, the NY state minimum wage has steadily increased which has resulted in an additional increase of $3.6M in wages being paid to our employees. We value every one of our employees and appreciate their hard work.

Goodwill of the Finger Lakes is a local, not-for-profit organization that serves over 100,000 people in our community each year. Our mission services help people overcome barriers to independence especially people who are blind. By shopping and donating at our local Goodwill stores, we are able help people right here in Rochester.

Durbin finally came to, or was taken in hand, releasing a statement that should by no means suffice to make up for the pain she has caused. In the statement, she apologized to clients, constituents and donors.

“The outpouring of comments regarding our decision to refocus the Vocational Rehab program and its impact on 12 program participants has caused us to take pause,” she said. “While we must be good stewards of our nonprofit, we must remain sharply focused on our mission. 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.”

The statement concludes, “I am committed to exploring how the state’s new minimum wage law can help raise up those we serve as well as the 400 employees in our organization. Regardless of the business and financial challenges ahead of us, Land of Lincoln Goodwill will always, first and foremost, remain true to our ideals and our mission of helping others to help themselves through the power of work.”—Ruth McCambridge