Unmasking the Exploitation of Workers with Disabilities

Blog Date: 
Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Is Goodwill Tricking or Treating its Contributors?

By Anil Lewis

Halloween, with children masked in creative costumes trick-or-treating through their neighborhoods, marks the beginning of the season of giving.  As you consider which nonprofit will receive your charitable donation, you should be aware that Goodwill Industries International is one of the many nonprofit organizations that takes advantage of Section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), an obscure provision that permits employers to pay workers with disabilities less than the federal minimum wage.  As a result of the use of this antiquated provision, over four-hundred thousand workers with disabilities are being paid less than the federal minimum wage, and over one-hundred thousand of these are receiving less than a dollar an hour.  Some are actually being paid as little as one penny per hour of work.  Goodwill is a household name that most people associate with helping workers with disabilities.  Unfortunately, most of Goodwill’s donors are unaware that under its mask of social responsibility hides an employer that exploits the labor of workers with disabilities by paying them pennies per hour.  

Goodwill disguises the inappropriate use of this failed practice by promoting it as a compassionate opportunity for “otherwise unemployable” people with disabilities to experience the tangible and intangible benefits of work.  Hundreds of thousands of individuals have received the stigmatizing designation of “unemployable” from these entities, when in fact, Goodwill is concealing its inability to provide quality job training and placement services by perpetuating the misconception that people with disabilities lack the capacity for competitive integrated employment.  Goodwill is joined by other service providers that have learned to profit from this misconception by portraying workers with disabilities as only worthy of charity, rather than worthy of a real opportunity to work and earn a living.  

Goodwill also attempts to hide its shameful practices and lack of expertise in providing true employment opportunities to workers with disabilities by asking you to believe that the Section 14(c) provision is a tool used to assist workers with disabilities in obtaining employment, and that subminimum-wage work affords individuals with significant disabilities an opportunity to gain work experience that they otherwise would not have.  However, the data show that these subminimum-wage sheltered work environments teach skills that prolong subminimum-wage employment indefinitely, thereby affording Goodwill access to a perpetually regenerating subminimum-wage labor source.  Moreover, as long as this practice is nominally legal and extremely profitable for entities like Goodwill, these otherwise employable individuals with disabilities will continue to be condemned to a lifetime of public dependency at subminimum wages.  

We hope that you share our belief that people with disabilities should genuinely benefit from your contributions - not through glorified daycare veiled in compassion, but through the provision of real training and support services that lead to their competitive integrated employment. By removing the facade of compassion, we reveal the shameful exploitation of people who deserve better.  People with disabilities, when exposed to professionals in environments that support high expectations and their full participation in work and society, demonstrate the capacity and desire to be fully participating citizens.  When provided the proper training and supports, workers with disabilities can be productive employees working alongside their nondisabled colleagues.  If we eliminate access barriers and create real opportunities for competitive employment, people with disabilities will choose to be participating members of society rather than beneficiaries.  Don’t let Goodwill, or any other subminimum-wage employer, trick you out of your holiday gift with soothing platitudes and false compassion. Treat a more deserving entity to your generosity.