Disability activists protest subminimum wages at Goodwill

More than 80 protests were held at Goodwill stores across the country August 25 in response to the retailer’s practice of paying many of its employees with disabilities at wages below the minimum wage.

“Goodwill Industries is one of the most well-known charitable organizations in the United States, but most members of the general public are unaware that Goodwill exploits people with disabilities,” the protests’ organizer, the National Federation of the Blind, said in a statement. “We are conducting informational protests to make the public aware of this practice that, although sadly still legal, is unfair, discriminatory, and immoral.”

The NFB  called for a boycott in June of the retailer, the nation’s largest private employer of people with disabilities, after obtaining documents demonstrating Goodwill’s pervasive use of the practice, which is legal under federal law.

Under a provision of the Fair Labor Standards Act, enacted in 1938, employers can apply to the Department of Labor for a Special Minimum Wage Certificate, which allows them to pay certain employees with severe disabilities subminimum wages.

Goodwill defended the practice as necessary to improve the dismally low employment rate for people with disabilities.

“The Special Minimum Wage Certificate 14(c) makes possible an important resource to employ individuals with significant disabilities,” Goodwill said in a statement. “The certificate enables Goodwill and other employers to provide opportunities for people with severe disabilities who otherwise might not be a part of the workforce.”

In response to a Freedom of Information Act request, NFB obtained copies of the certificates in June. The certificates showed that employees at 64 of Goodwill’s 165 affiliates are being paid less than the minimum wage, covering as many as 7,300 employees. Overall about 30,000 of Goodwill’s 105,000 employees have disabilities.

The average wage for individuals being paid under the minimum wage was $7.47 per hour. However, a significant number of employees are being paid practically nothing. In one case, an employee was being paid just $1.44 per hour.

Nationwide, about 420,00 people with disabilities are being paid subminimum wages, with the vast majority receiving employment through state sponsored sheltered workshops.

The National Council on Disability, a federal agency that provides recommendations to the president on disability policy, released a report August 23 calling for the subminimum wages provision to be phased out over the next six years, both in the private sector and in sheltered workshops.

Specifically, the report recommends that the federal government stop providing funding for states that support services in sheltered workshops and replace it with expanded services to help people with disabilities work in competitive employment.

It also recommends that the Department of Education bar school districts from setting employment in sheltered workshops as a goal in student’s Individual Education Plans and transitional services plans, in order to promote integrated employment as a first option.
Videos of protests in Denver, Greensville, South Carolina and Albany, Georgia can be seen here.