I saw this news report on NBC the other night. And it made me sick. You can read or watch it here. It’s about Goodwill Industries and how they pay some of their workers with disabilities. The story highlights an older blind couple. The husband gets paid $5.something an hour. The wife recently had to quit because they dropped her pay so low ($2.something an hour) that she would be LOSING money after paying for the bus to get to work. Their performance reviews include using a stop watch to see how quickly they can hang clothes. If they don’t do it quickly enough, their pay drops. This couple gets paid a lot compared to others; the lowest rate they found was in my own state of Pennsylvania: $0.22/hour.
How is this legal? The Special Minimum Wage Certificate, part of the Fair Labor Standards Act passed by FDR. There’s part of your problem. This law (or “loophole” as NBC calls it,) was written in a time where people still largely hid away their disabled children so no one would know their shame. Paying them anything would have been seen as a great charity by some, and a great folly by others.
But times have changed, thank God.
The president of Goodwill parries that many of these individuals come to work not for the money, but for the experience and socialization. He adds that there are many services they offer their employees with disabilities that they could otherwise not afford if they didn’t pay them so little. Complete with testimonials. Oh, and the stopwatch thing? It’s part of the law that they have to follow. Which makes sense as it was written in an era where assembly lines were so huge. It’s logical. So I buy it for a second.
But then I think, “Wait. How much money would you have to pay people without disabilities to do this job? You’re making a profit each year; many of your executives make well over six figures. So many other businesses operate paying all of their employees full minimum wage, even for what is considered menial work, and still make enough profit to do good things in the communities they operate in. A good bit of your inventory is donated. Do you take advantage of the tax breaks that companies that hire people with disabilities can receive? And where the heck does the ADA fit into all of this?”
I’m angry again. And I think of the blind woman who had actually suggested she could work a job with phones, building on her ABILITIES instead of counting herself unable. She was denied. This wasn’t a social event for her. It was the money that put a roof over her head.
Maybe in her example it was just a case of poor mid-level management. Someone was trying to impress the people at the top by saving money and screwing their employees at the bottom. Or maybe not.
I’m confused, and despite the logic of Goodwill’s response, I’m still pretty upset. I’m definitely taking my business to their competitors, my local thrift store. Or consignment stores for the nicer stuff. And I don’t just mean my buying power, I mean my donations. There’s my stopwatch, Jim Gibbons. I’ll press the button again when you can prove to me that your company is doing everything as morally and responsibly as they can. And I’m open to that including a change in legislation.