Goodwill paying disabled employees pennies per hour

Advocacy groups push to end subminimum wage law, which allows bosses to give scant payment to people with disabilities

Mary Jones takes pride in the neatly tucked corners of her bed and the spotless countertops of her kitchen in the small efficiency apartment she calls home in northern New Jersey. A little sign next to the front door reminds her: “Success starts with a single step!”

Born partially blind and with cerebral palsy, Jones savors the independence of living on her own with just weekly visits from an aide. So when she was offered work at a local Goodwill charity store in the fall of 2012, Jones said, she looked forward to the independence of a job. But the reality was much different.

“They had me downstairs in their store, trying to hang clothes up on the hangers,” Jones said. “And to make a dollar, I had to hang a hundred pieces. If I was lucky, I made 50 cents. It was a penny per item of clothing. I felt worthless. I just didn’t want to go. They made me feel bad because I couldn’t work fast enough.” Jones is not using her real name out of a fear of retribution.

Jones’ pay stubs, which she shared with Al Jazeera, show the subminimum wages she was paid by Goodwill Industries of Greater New York and Northern New Jersey Inc. Between September 2012 and January 2013, she made as little as $3.27 for 24.88 hours of work. The biggest check she received was $18.18 for 35.87 hours of work. She paid state taxes, as well as Social Security and Medicare deductions, on her wages.

But the subminimum wage Jones was paid is legal, thanks to section 14C of the U.S. Fair Labor Standards Act. Passed in 1938 and known as the Special Minimum Wage Certificate, the law allows more than 3,300 employers nationwide to pay people with disabilities below federal minimum wage.

Goodwill Industries said less than 7 percent of its workforce — about 7,500 employees — is paid this way nationwide. Goodwill has defended its use of the Special Minimum Wage Certificate, saying, “Eliminating this program would harm, not help, people with significant and multiple disabilities.” 

Goodwill declined to be interviewed for this article, but previously, company spokesman Brad Turner-Little has told Al Jazeera: “We at Goodwill believe work is an important part of the human experience and the human spirit, and the certificate allows us to incorporate people into our workforce that we otherwise wouldn’t necessarily be able to without the certificate.”

Goodwill Industries of Greater New York and Northern New Jersey Inc. reported assets of $38 million in 2012. Tax returns show its CEO earned $467,000 in compensation.

The subminimum wage Jones was paid is legal, thanks to section 14C of the U.S. Fair Labor Standards Act. Passed in 1938 and known as the Special Minimum Wage Certificate, the law allows more than 3,300 employers nationwide to pay people with disabilities below federal minimum wage.

More than 170,000 people have signed a petition asking Goodwill to pay all of its workers at least the federal minimum wage. Arthur Jacobs of the National Federation of the Blind helped deliver the petition to Goodwill’s offices in New York City late last year. “When you hear ‘subminimum wage,’ you think that only happens in China, and other places that don’t have the kind of regulations that the United States has,” said Jacobs. “But we have found that there are people who are making as little as 3 cents an hour. It’s crazy. They say the wages are performance-based, but the way that they evaluate that performance is very arbitrary.”

In February, disabilities rights groups succeeded in pressuring the White House to include federal contractors with disabilities who had been earning less under the Special Minimum Wage Certificate in the new $10.10 per hour federal contractor minimum wage.

Ari Ne’eman, president of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, estimated that between 7,000 and 15,000 federal contractors had been paid subminimum wages. He said the White House’s decision has set an important precedent.

“In addition to directly impacting thousands of federal contract workers, it places the issue of minimum wage for disabled workers squarely at the center of the minimum wage conversation for the first time,” he said.

“We are now really putting those in the private sector who are defending subminimum wages in the public eye, and making the public see them as we in the advocacy community have seen them all along — as employers defending worker exploitation,” Ne’eman said.

For Jacobs, who is blind, and other workers with disabilities, it is also about shattering stereotypes.

“The biggest thing that I encounter in finding a job is that it’s not my disability that stands in my way,” said Jacobs. “It’s really more the attitudes of the people I encounter and their ideas about what I am able or am not able to do that stand in my way. So it’s not really about capacity, it’s about attitude and misconception.”

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