Goodwill Industries shouldn’t be faulted for abiding by federal labor laws that allow it to pay low rates to people with disabilities. In recent months, a lot of attention has been paid to reports that Goodwill pays as little as 22 cents per hour to its special-needs employees. Yet those employees benefit significantly in other ways — and those benefits wouldn’t exist be it not for Goodwill’s practices.
Goodwill is one of more than 3,400 employers in the United States that take advantage of the Special Minimum Wage Certificate issued by the U.S. Department of Labor. The certificate is granted in rare circumstances where employers create jobs for people with multiple mental and physical disabilities in ways that primarily benefit the worker. In a front-page story Wednesday, our partners at abc27 News documented that practice taking place at Harrisburg’s Goodwill Industries, where some workers make less than $1 per hour.
Goodwill argues — rightly — that the alternative would be no jobs at all for those with special needs. Jobs are created specifically — and tailored — for those with severe disabilities. While Goodwill reaps a marginal benefit to its enterprise by having tasks completed by those employees, the real benefit goes to the worker. The low-paying jobs are highly regulated and amount to a small percentage of Goodwill’s payroll. Some flourish in their roles and earn raises and competitive wages.
Much as some labor-rights activists would like to make the issue about wages, it’s really not about money. The benefits extend beyond a pay rate: Each day, Goodwill’s special-needs workers show up to accomplish a task, interact with colleagues, form friendships and gain a sense of self-respect.
In writing to The Huffington Post, Goodwill CEO Jim Gibbons wrote: “While some have called for this program to be eliminated, let’s be clear about exactly what that would mean. It would mean that many hard-working people would be out of their jobs. It would mean that even more than 80 percent of people with disabilities would be out of work. The people protesting the certificate’s use are not offering solutions or sustainable models to help these people find work should the certificate be eliminated.”
He’s right. if Goodwill and its more than 3,400 corporate comrades in arms across the country stopped creating jobs for those with severe disabilities, they wouldn’t be replaced with higher-wage equivalent or those same employees.
Goodwill’s doing nothing illegal, and in fact is doing something really wonderful.