"In the post-ADA world, Section14(c) is an anomaly in the law, and it is one that should be eliminated." -Samuel R. Bagenstos
I've spent the past several weeks having a dialogue with my local Goodwill. They are celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) this month, and our paper featured the story, inviting all to attend the celebration. The article also centered on one of Goodwill's employees, a blind man living in our community.
According to the story, this man had a difficult time accepting his disability. A drunk driver caused him injury resulting in his loss of sight. He was eventually able to find work with our local Goodwill, which helped him regain confidence and purpose in life. He beamed a wide smile in the accompanying photograph. I'm glad he is part of my community.
I wrote into the paper after the piece was published, thanking our local Goodwill for their work but also drawing attention to the fact that many Goodwills in our nation take advantage of their disabled workers. Goodwill International endorses and supports smaller sects in utilizing a discriminatory loophole written in 1938, Section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act. It allows businesses to pay disabled workers subminimum wages. In 2012 Goodwill International had approximately 7,300 disabled employees making below minimum wage.
Goodwill International has been widely criticized for it's exploitation of these disabled workers in recent years. The story was featured on NBC and there is a petition with 170,000 signatures demanding they pay their disabled employees fairly. No apparent action has been taken by Goodwill International to remedy the injustice. They have merely defended their stance that it is lawful to pay these workers pennies per hour. They also claims that putting the disabled to work, even at these blatantly unethical wages, is a charitable act.
I informed our community of this in my letter to the editor because it is important that we have the full story, especially if we are celebrating such monumental gain as the ADA. While my local Goodwill prepares a free luncheon for the 25th Anniversary, some disabled person working in the same organization is getting a month's paycheck of a few dollars. I spoke out, lest this event become a complete ruse.
After my letter was published, my local Goodwill immediately reached out to me. They reassured me that all of their employees make above minimum wage and that they were proud to employ many disabled workers who would not be able to find work otherwise. In the spirit of transparency, they also invited me to their newly built facilities for a private tour with the top level execs in the branch. I accepted the offer.
Upon arriving at the Goodwill, I had the opportunity to meet with the CEO and president. He has been recognized in our community as a leader who does significant work to improve the lives of the disabled. I had hopes that we would find a common ground to discuss the unfair practice of paying subminimum wage to disabled employees. Unfortunately, in his opening words to me, I realized we were worlds apart. He said that they have not utilized section 14(c) under his leadership, because frankly, it was just too much work.
He then went on to explain why some Goodwills do pay their employees subminimum wages, and in line with his higher ups at Goodwill International, he defended their rights to do so. According to him, these Goodwills depend on subcontract work to stay afloat. They pay their disabled employees based on production, and the system of evaluating production and pay is highly regulated. He also made sure to explain that these workers receive support and education, in addition to their wages. At every turn, he justified the injustice.
I tried to explain, that if these Goodwills exist on a dated system requiring such cheap labor, it proves that they are pulling in some kind of profit. If they were just breaking even and running solely to put disabled people to work as a service to the community, they'd be scrambling to find another business plan. Non-profits want to grow so that they can help more people. Goodwill has no track record of idling by. This current system obviously serves Goodwill.
Supplementing subminimum wages with services like job training, education, etc is also inadequate reasoning. Many jobs have similar benefits on top of base pay. No one tells non-disabled workers how to spend their paycheck. Why should disabled employees have a portion of their wages paid out in services? These benefits are what Goodwill decides are best for them, as opposed to allowing the disabled person to use their hard earned money to live as they please.
I said that too. I told the CEO that disabled people work hard, and it's true. I don't know if there is a people that works harder. My words were met with a no they don't, then a quick retraction, well yes they do, hard for them.
He told me that for every parent like me, there was another one fighting to keep these underpaid positions open because Goodwill was the only one helping their (adult) children. These parents were thankful that their children had a place to go everyday and a purpose found through work.
This is because the disabled have always been offered subminimum care from our society. Any support is appreciated, but I assert these parents, and more importantly, the disabled workers themselves, aren't refusing equality and fair pay. They do not want the little help they are offered to go away. They can't afford it. They are trying to make the best life they can under societal neglect. Pennies on the dollar is better than nothing, so they resign to subhuman treatment given no other option.
I just want to go to sleep at night with out worrying that my disabled children will be similarly taken advantage of. All parents surely agree.
I thought that anyone so revered in his work for the disabled would at least notice that paying them subminimum wages was a wrong, rooted in the past, and in need of remedying. I thought he would acknowledge the practice as something that needs to change. I thought he'd say, we can do better! He didn't do those things. He is obviously a good person, a generous person, who wants to do right. But, he didn't grasp the very simple matter.
Wouldn't it be good if all disabled workers were at least paid minimum wage?
Wouldn't that be best? Better than now? Better for the disabled? Isn't that the least we can do?
For those that truly care about and serve the disabled, the only answer is yes. There is no need for debate, no need for defense, nor justification. There is only more questions, followed by our hard work.
How can we make fair wages happen?
How can we get from the wrong past to the right future? How can we be good?
Goodwill needs to do better. The charity needs restructuring. A new and equitable business plan needs to be implemented for the branches who claim to depend on subcontract work and cheap labor. The ones like my local Goodwill need to use their own profitable systems to assist the other Goodwills in doing so. They need to do this for their disabled employees and they need to do this to be a ethical, relevant, and forward moving charity.
I wrote again to the paper. I publicly challenged our Goodwill to move forward, and against subminimum wages. I hope they do. They thanked me and again invited me to attend their upcoming ADA 25th Anniversary celebration.
I appreciate them for first allowing this dialogue to happen, and then remaining welcoming to me, even in my opposition, but I will decline the invitation. Instead I will celebrate quietly, intentionally honoring my disabled children and the possibilities of an equitable future for them. I will celebrate my own disabled self, and every other disabled person I know.
A sincere happy anniversary! Here's to more monumental change.