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Earning Less Than Minimum Wage at Goodwill

Author: Wendy Taormina-Weiss

Published: 2012-06-12

Synopsis and Key Points:

Goodwill Industries is reported as paying some of its employees with disabilities less than minimum wage.

Main Digest

Goodwill Industries, one of the best-known nonprofit organizations in the entire world, is paying some of its employees with disabilities less than minimum wage. Arguments might be made on both sides, both pro and con, for this practice. Some might argue that paying people with disabilities less than minimum wage is appropriate because they still have the opportunity to be active and participate for example. Other might argue that doing so is a clear violation of the minimum wage law.

Minimum Wage - The lowest wage paid or permitted to be paid; specifically,: a wage fixed by legal authority or by contract as the least that may be paid either to employed persons generally or to a particular category of employed persons. Supporters of the minimum wage say that it increases the standard of living of workers, reduces poverty, and forces businesses to be more efficient. Opponents say that if it is high enough to be effective, it increases unemployment, particularly among workers with very low productivity due to inexperience or disability, thereby harming less skilled workers and possibly excluding some groups from the labor market; additionally it is less effective and more damaging to businesses than other methods of reducing poverty.

The National Federation of the Blind (NFB) is promoting a boycott of Goodwill, hoping to convince the organization to pay it's employees with disabilities at least minimum wage. Paying people with disabilities less than minimum wage is actually legal under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). So what are people to think? As an advocate, it is utterly unacceptable for a Disability Organization to pay employees with disabilities less than minimum wage. However, if Goodwill is simply going to deny people with disabilities the opportunity to be productive, learn, interact with others, and just cut back on the numbers of people it hires if it is forced to pay people at least minimum wage - it could find a number of people with disabilities with nothing to do.

The FLSA contains within it a provision that is not well-known that allows certain organizations to pay employees with disabilities less than minimum wage. In some instances the amount is just over a buck an hour. The National Federation of the Blind (NFB) has been attempting to change this provision within the FLSA for a number of years; it has not succeeded. The NFB is now working to get Goodwill to change its pay practices, hoping that other nonprofit organizations will as well. Anil Lewis of the NFB stated, "This is simply unfair, discriminatory, and immoral."

In my opinion, Anil is correct; the practice is unfair, it is discriminatory, and is both unethical and immoral. It comes across as taking advantage of the employee and makes the organization look really bad too. Others might argue that Goodwill is at least teaching people with disabilities new skills, putting them to work, and keeping them from sitting at home and doing nothing. From another perspective, there are a great many non-disabled persons who are unemployed doing just that in America right now and there does not seem to be any argument over whether or not to pay them less than minimum wage just to keep them busy.

The NFB has filed a Freedom of Information Act request and has obtained the certificate from the United States Department of Labor that authorizes Goodwill Industries to pay such low wage rates to employees with disabilities. Anil Lewis stated, "The thing that's so very frustrating for me is that the reason this whole law exists is because people don't believe that blind people and people with other disabilities have the capacity to participate in the workforce." An interesting fact is that many people with disabilities work just as hard or harder than non-disabled workers.

Could the argument be made that a certain amount of time a person with disabilities spends at Goodwill working is equivalent to an apprenticeship? Or perhaps a training period? Perhaps; some non-disabled workers pursue such positions at wages that are less than adequate because they are aware of the value of the education, skills, and other types of training they are gaining by doing so.

The issue is that Goodwill Industries is not presenting the time a person is learning new skills, getting an education related to employment, and gaining the training they need as an apprenticeship or training period apparently. The problem is that Goodwill continues to pay employees with disabilities less than minimum wage even after a reasonable training and education period supposedly. As a person who has not worked for Goodwill, I cannot say.

Anil Lewis said, "The irony is that the CEO of Goodwill industries is a blind person. He has benefited from our particular efforts in touting to the world that blind people have capacity to the tune of making over $500,000 a year. I don't know how he reconciles paying other people with disabilities less than minimum wage. To me, that is hypocrisy." It seems the person at the top has forgotten what it means to be at the bottom. Maybe the comforts of life, a nice office, and a top position have created a wall that is high enough.

Anil Lewis and his friends from the NFB attempted to speak with Goodwill CEO Jim Gibbons, but were told to call and make an appointment. It seems that Mr. Gibbons is too busy earning half a million dollars a year to interact with the leaders of a fellow Disability Organization. Maybe Mr. Gibbons simply did not want to talk about something that is clearly a scar on what is otherwise a wonderful organization - Goodwill.

Goodwill Industries did release a statement in regards to paying its employees with disabilities less than minimum wage, and its argument is that it supports changes to the FLSA as long as the right of people with disabilities to maintain employment of their choice is preserved. In other words, Goodwill wants to keep on doing what it is doing. Goodwill stated that across America, 79% of people with disabilities are unemployed and The Special Minimum Wage Certificate is important as a resource to employ people who experience significant forms of disabilities. Goodwill says the Certificate helps their organization and other employers to give people with severe disabilities the opportunity to work when they might not otherwise be employed.

Reading the statement from Goodwill reminds me of the arguments for child labor and the related ones for paying them less. Society is something that must be accessible to everyone, despite ability. Society is something that everyone must be able to participate in. Goodwill is attempting to justify a more polite version of Henry's Turkey House or a sweat shop in my opinion.

The practice of paying less than minimum wage is unacceptable. Minimum standards for employment must be set for everyone in society despite ability, and that minimum standard must include a minimum wage. With the understanding that 64 Goodwills employ around 7,300 employees with disabilities under the Special Minimum Wage Certificate, it is my opinion that it is past time for Goodwill to re-examine its perspectives on disability rights and ethics.

National Federation of the Blind (NFB)

"The real problem of blindness is not the loss of eyesight. The real problem is the misunderstanding and lack of information that exist."

Goodwill Industries

"Goodwill Industries International enhances the dignity and quality of life of individuals, families and communities by eliminating barriers to opportunity and helping people in need reach their fullest potential through the power of work."

Goodwill Pays Disabled Employees Less Than Minimum Wage

"One of the most well-known non-profits in the world is paying some disabled employees less than minimum wage. The National Federation of the Blind is urging a boycott of Goodwill in hopes it hopes it will convince the organization to stop this practice, a practice that is perfectly legal under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA)."

Henry's Turkey workers abused, denied pay, new federal suit claims

"Developmentally disabled men working at a West Liberty turkey-processing plant were hit, kicked, called names, and their injuries were disregarded by their supervisors, according to a federal lawsuit filed today. The suit filed by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) against the men's former employer, Henry's Turkey Service, also alleges they were denied lawful wages."

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