The Sin of Omission: A Rebuttal of Goodwill’s Policy Statement on Subminimum Wage Payments to Workers with Disabilities

Blog Date: 
Friday, June 21, 2013
By Anil Lewis
 
With the pending broadcast of a national news story on NBC Rock Center tonight making the public aware of the legal ability for employers to pay workers with disabilities wages less than the federal minimum wage, Goodwill International, a self-proclaimed leader in the employment of people with disabilities, has decided to make a preemptive case for taking advantage of this unfair, discriminatory, and immoral provision.  Goodwill’s position paper, entitled "Employment of People with Disabilities through FLSA Section 14(c)," is a failed attempt to justify the unjustifiable.  By using more palatable language, and stating a biased perspective without giving full information, Goodwill is committing a sin of omission, one that threatens to keep over four-hundred thousand people with disabilities from receiving the proper training and support to secure gainful employment at the federal minimum wage or higher. 
 
Throughout the paper, Goodwill uses terms that attempt to soften the fact that it advocates for the payment of subminimum wages to workers with disabilities.  Goodwill prefers the term Commensurate Wage, which masks the fact that these wages are below the federal minimum, some as low as one cent per hour.  Goodwill prefers to use the term Community Rehabilitation Program, which is essentially the same old sheltered workshop setup that existed in 1938.  I have written blog posts on how Goodwill is using compassionate discrimination to paint themselves as the victims of the exemption who are only using existing law to take advantage of the commensurate wage fallacy.  The following paragraphs disclose what Goodwill chose to omit.
 
Goodwill chooses not to restate in this paper that 101 of its 165 affiliates do not use a subminimum wage certificate.  
 
Therefore, by Goodwill’s own admission, the overwhelming majority of its affiliates are successful without the use of this “Essential Tool.”  I guess that is why the paper offers the following disclaimer: “The information contained in this document represents the current view of Goodwill Industries International on the issues discussed as of the date of publication.”  This means Goodwill International, where the blind CEO is paid over $500,000 per year by an organization that pays other people with disabilities 22 cents per hour, endorse this paper, but not all of its affiliates did.  Moreover, it is not legal to pay workers with disabilities subminimum wages in Canada, so the Goodwill Canadian affiliates do not have the legal ability to pay subminimum wages, and are still successful.
 
Goodwill chooses to play on the pre-existing misperception that people with disabilities do not have the capacity to be productive employees.  
 
This has been proven false, over and over again, by people with a variety of disabilities, including those that Goodwill would label too severely disabled to work. The dismal picture Goodwill paints is more of a condemnation of its inability to properly train individuals with disabilities than a reflection of the potential of the worker with a disability.  Other entities, similarly situated, working with the same population of people with disabilities, are successful in providing the proper training and supports for these workers to secure employment at the federal minimum wage or higher.  Again, the majority of the Goodwill affiliates are doing it.  Why not all?
 
Goodwill states that people with disabilities and their families choose to work in these subminimum wage work environments.  
 
The only choice they are being presented with is work at subminimum wages or no work at all.  This is the Goodwill choice, but not the only choice.  Goodwill chooses not to reference the reports that describe the innovative, alternative training and placement strategies that are being used to employ people with significant disabilities in competitive integrated work environments.  It does not reference the research that demonstrates that the innovative alternative strategies cost less and produce better outcomes for workers with disabilities. 
 
Goodwill states that the National Council on Disability (NCD) has concerns about the significant unemployment rate of people with disabilities, but does not mention that NCD has said that Section 14(c) of the FLSA should be repealed and subminimum wage payments to workers with disabilities should be phased out.  
 
Goodwill states that it agrees with the position of the U. S. Business Leadership Network (USBLN) that for-profit employers should not be allowed to obtain Special Wage Certificates, but does not explain that USBLN only represents for-profit employers and therefore chose to limit its position statement to the businesses it serves.
 
So many questions go unanswered in the Goodwill paper.   If subminimum wages are such an essential tool for the employment of people with disabilities, why is it such a secret?  If the use of the subminimum wage is such a successful tool, why is there still an over 70 percent unemployment rate for people with disabilities?  If subminimum wage payments are such an essential tool for Goodwill, why do almost two thirds of the Goodwill affiliates choose not to use this “tool?”
 
Goodwill’s solution is to maintain the status quo, and to continue to use the revenue generated from the labor of its workers with disabilities, the revenue from the charitable contributions, the revenue from federal contracts, and the revenue resulting from its non-profit status, to compensate its executives with substantial salaries, rather than fairly compensating the workers with disabilities.  Moreover, Goodwill uses the revenue to market its message of low expectations to people with disabilities and their families, leading them down the path to perpetual public dependence, not full participation.  
 
The most offensive use of the revenue received by these sheltered workshops is paying their lobbyists to persuade members of Congress to continue to allow them to legally pay these workers pennies per hour.  Finally, Goodwill suggests that its preferred solution is for the federal government to spend even more money to increase regulation and enforcement of this discriminatory policy, burying the exploitation under additional mountains of bureaucracy.  All of these funds would be better spent creating real training and employment opportunities for all people with disabilities.  
 
We recognize that the competitive employment of people with disabilities presents significant challenges.  However, we feel that the use of subminimum wages is simply a cop-out, especially when we are aware of training and employment strategies that work.  We applaud all of the success stories that Goodwill uses to promote its services.  We just want and insist that Goodwill’s employees are paid a fair wage.  If Goodwill, or the other entities currently taking advantage of this subminimum wage provision, cannot adopt a new business model that provides the training and support to allow the worker with a disability to earn at least the federal minimum wage, why should our public and philanthropic dollars continue to support them?