Wages prompt call for boycott of Goodwill

Goodwill Industries International and the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) are involved in a battle over wages for workers with disabilities. The dispute has the NFB calling for a boycott of Goodwill’s stores and programs. The boycott was announced June 7. The dispute centers on a federal labor provision that dates from the 1930s. At the center of the debate is whether workers with disabilities should be paid less than the minimum wage and under what circumstances is such pay justified.

It’s a debate that pits two old and historic disability service organizations, the NFB and Goodwill, against each other. State affiliates of the NFB, including Minnesota, are meeting with their local Goodwill organizations to discuss the issue and to see what changes can be made.

According to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests filed by the NFB at the national level, Goodwill was found to be paying some employees as little as $1.44 per hour. That’s far below the minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. But it is legal under federal language that dates from 1938.

“Our goal is to get people with disabilities to be paid a fair minimum wage,” said Jennifer Dunnam, president of the NFB Minnesota affiliate. While two-thirds of Goodwill operations don’t use the federal wage exemption, those that do are being targeted for change. Dunnam said discussions with the Minnesota Goodwill officials are just getting started. NFB, along with many other organizations, supports the Fair Wages for Workers with Disabilities Act which would phase out and then repeal the nearly 75-year-old provision of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) that permits special certificate holders to pay sub-minimum wages to workers with disabilities. “Things were very different in 1938 when this exemption (Section 14 c) was adopted. It’s time to get rid of it,” Dunnam said.

What happens with this issue hinges on what Congress does. In October 2011, Congressmen Cliff Stearns (R-FL) and Tim Bishop (D-NY) introduced the Fair Wages for Workers with Disabilities Act of 2011. The bill would phase out Section 14 c of the FLSA. Three members of Minnesota’s Congressional delegation, Keith Ellison, Collin Peterson and Betty McCollum, are co-sponsors.

The FLSA allows entities holding special minimum wage certificates to pay workers with disabilities less than the federal minimum wage. These entities are usually segregated workplaces, such as sheltered workshops that employ workers with a wide range of disabilities. Federal law requires that certain goods and services procured by the federal government be purchased from these entities in order to provide workers with disabilities employment. But the NFB argues that because the workers don’t all get the federal minimum wage, they lack protections other workers have.

The NFB also points out that recently some sheltered workshops have begun to pay disabled workers the minimum wage or higher. The NFB contends that because many places that use the wage certificates get the federal contracts, these places should have no problem paying employees a minimum wage. But some of the entities using the special wage certificates counter that they would have to lay off workers if they had to pay more and that the ability to pay less allows people with disabilities to have jobs they wouldn’t otherwise have.

In a response posted on its website, Goodwill International stated:“Goodwill believes in the power of work for all individuals. Since 1902, Goodwill has trained millions of people for jobs and is the leading nonprofit provider of job training, employment placement programs and community-based services for people who face challenges to finding employment. Goodwill funds its mission by selling donated clothing, household goods and other items in more than 2,700 stores and online”

Goodwill International indicated that it supports changes in the FLSA so long as the right of people with disabilities to maintain employment of their choice is preserved. According to Goodwill, 79% of Americans with disabilities are unemployed.

“The special minimum wage certificate is an important resource to employ individuals with significant disabilities,” Goodwill International stated. “The certificate enables Goodwill and thousands of other employers to provide opportunities for people with severe disabilities who otherwise might not be part of the workforce.” The statement goes on to note that they also allow “employers to pay a commensurate wage that could result in less than minimum wage to employees whose disability significantly impairs their ability to do their job.

Goodwill estimates that more than 420,000 people with significant disabilities are paid with the certificates, through the FLSA. In Goodwill’s own network of 165 local, autonomous, community-based organizations in the United States and Canada, there are about 105,000 people employed. Of those about 30,000 are people with disabilities. Goodwill’s records indicate it has 64 organizations that employ approximately 7,300 people with significant disabilities under the Special Minimum Wage Certificate. The average hourly wage is $7.47.