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How Goodwill and Other Subminimum Wage Employers Exploit Workers With Disabilities

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Sometimes the news isn’t as straightforward as it’s made to seem. Karin Willison, The Mighty’s disability editor, explains what to keep in mind if you see this topic or similar stories in your newsfeed. This is The Mighty Takeaway.

The CEO of an Illinois regional Goodwill is under fire for threatening to cut the jobs of employees with disabilities. Sharon Durbin, CEO of Land of Lincoln Goodwill, sent a letter to dozens of disabled thrift store workers, informing them that they would no longer receive a paycheck. Durbin blamed the state minimum wage increase and said 11 remaining disabled employees could lose their jobs as well.

Durbin’s decision stood in direct contradiction of Goodwill’s core mission of providing jobs for those in need, and people with and without disabilities were outraged. In response to the public outcry, Durbin said she will reverse her decision. However, this does not fully repair the harm she caused, nor does it address the larger issue — how her regional Goodwill and others across the country exploit workers with disabilities.

In a statement aired by Illinois TV network WCIA, Durbin justified her initial decision to stop paying most of Goodwill’s disabled workers by saying, “It 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.”

Say what? I know we live in an era of “alternative facts,” but last I checked, a “work component” where you get paid for some form of physical or mental labor is called a JOB. And a paycheck isn’t something you receive “through grace,” it’s earned.

The subtext of Durbin’s statement is clear, and unfortunately it’s one I’ve heard many times: Jobs for people with disabilities, especially people with intellectual disabilities, aren’t “real jobs” — they’re a form of charity for people who can’t really work, don’t know better and are just happy to have something to do and bring home a little pocket money. But nothing could be further from the truth.

People with disabilities want to work. According to a 2015 Kessler Foundation survey, 68 percent of people with disabilities are “striving to work” — seeking employment and/or the support services they need to hold down a job. Of course, not everyone with a disability is physically or mentally able to work, but far more of us are never given the opportunity to succeed. People with intellectual disabilities face especially strong prejudice; they are frequently infantilized and presumed to be incompetent because they do not fit a narrow definition of “intelligence.”

The assumption that people with disabilities are incapable of competitive employment is enshrined in U.S. federal law since 1938. Section 14 (c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act allows people with disabilities to be paid under minimum wage if we are judged to be less “productive” than an able-bodied person doing the same job. And Goodwill Industries is among the biggest users of 14 (c) wage certificates. According to a 2013 Huffington Post report, 7,300 of Goodwill’s 105,000 employees nationwide are paid subminimum wages, supposedly for financial reasons. But that excuse doesn’t hold up when you consider the $5.6 billion in revenue Goodwill takes in yearly.

Land of Lincoln Goodwill earned over $17.5 million in revenue in 2017. Despite the $15.7 million dedicated to “program services, employment and training,” they supposedly can’t afford the $2 million needed to keep their disabled employees, or a bit more to phase out subminimum wages for their 27 disabled employees who currently receive them.

It’s important to note not all Goodwills are bad. Since each territory is independently managed, their policies vary widely. For example, Goodwill Industries of Central Illinois, which covers the area adjacent to Land of Lincoln Goodwill, pays all of its employees with disabilities at least minimum wage.

According to Goodwill Industries International, 30 local Goodwill organizations currently hold 14 (c) certificates to pay subminimum wages. The governing body claims it advocates for transitioning subminimum wage workers to competitive pay, but has not made doing so a requirement, and thus bears responsibility for the ongoing exploitation of disabled workers at Land of Lincoln and other Goodwill affiliates.

In recent years, public opinion has turned against the idea of paying people with disabilities less than minimum wage. Seven states passed laws to phase out subminimum wages, the most recent being Texas, whose governor, Greg Abbott, a wheelchair user, signed the bill in June. The federal government is considering phasing out 14 (c) and proposed bills in Congress to raise the general minimum wage would also phase out subminimum wages.

Many people with disabilities have spoken out about how subminimum wages keep them trapped in dead-end jobs and segregated in sheltered workshops. They feel exploited and held back from achieving their potential, but often stay because they have nowhere else to go. The documentary “Bottom Dollars” features several people with intellectual disabilities who spent years in subminimum wage sheltered workshops and now work in the community. The documentary also reveals average wages for disabled workers at various Goodwills around the country, which range from $2.53 per hour in Nebraska to 2 cents per hour in Cincinnati, Ohio. Two cents!

People with disabilities, even those society considers to be “severe,” can work. It’s been proven over and over again. But unfortunately, the biggest barriers they face are often put up by those who are supposed to be their allies and supporters. Parents and family members. Vocational rehabilitation agencies. Nonprofit organizations like Goodwill. Often, these people and entities think they are representing the interests of those with disabilities, but they’re actually holding them back from achieving their full potential.

In a subminimum wage system, there’s no incentive to help workers become more productive or place them in a role better suited to their abilities. Earlier this year, I was at a Goodwill store in Florida and saw a man with cerebral palsy (CP) putting clothing on hangers and racks. It was clearly physically hard for him, and there was no way he could do the task as quickly as someone who doesn’t have difficulty using their hands. So why did they have him doing that particular job and not something else, perhaps on the computer, where he could work at an efficiency level more comparable to an able-bodied person? I have CP and I’d be even worse at it than he was, which means I too could be paid subminimum wage at Goodwill. Even though I have a master’s degree.

In her WCIA interview, Durbin said she believed the minimum wage increase would lead to job losses. Durbin’s assertions are not backed up by current research, but they stoke fears of a scenario many parents and disability service providers believe will become commonplace if subminimum wage is phased out. They worry people with disabilities, especially those with severe intellectual disabilities, will lose their jobs if they have to be paid minimum wage. Businesses are businesses after all, and they have to think about the bottom line.

I can understand this fear, but it’s not a valid excuse to preserve the status quo exploitation of disabled workers. Hundreds of thousands of people with intellectual disabilities already work in integrated settings and receive competitive wages, proving it’s possible. Some are supporting themselves and each other by starting businesses like John’s Crazy Socks, Poppin’ Joe’s Kettle Corn and a growing number of coffee shops.

People with disabilities are often encouraged to be grateful for any scraps thrown our way and declare any person or organization that offers us the tiniest bit of consideration a saint. But a business or nonprofit that pays subminimum wages to workers with disabilities is not noble or charitable, it is profiting from the abuse of those it claims to help. And when a charity whose purpose is to find jobs for people with disabilities dismisses those jobs as “not real” and jumps to eliminate them at the first sign of a funding challenge, they are the ones who are incapable, not their disabled workers. It doesn’t have to be this way.

We can work together to ensure when subminimum wage is gone, it will be replaced by meaningful job opportunities that meet a wide variety of needs. That starts with holding nonprofit organizations and their representatives accountable when they devalue the work of the clients they are supposed to serve. As long as it’s legal to pay people with disabilities under minimum wage, people like Durbin will view employing us as a form of charity, a favor or an option rather than a matter of equal rights.

Equal employment isn’t “given through grace,” it’s a civil right. Employing people with disabilities and paying them fair wages is not an act of charity; it is a good business decision. People with disabilities have unique insights and talents to bring to the table. So hire us. Pay us the same as you would anyone else. You’ll be glad you did.

Getty image by ehrlife.

Originally published: July 18, 2019
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