Disabled Goodwill Employees Make as Little as 22 Cents an Hour

Imagine going to work every day and getting just 22 cents an hour for your labor. That’s a reality for some workers in the United States thanks to a system of subminimum wage laws and other loopholes in laws such as the Special Wage Certificate Program (1938), which specifically allows employers to underpay disabled employees.

Advocates have been fighting for years on this issue, arguing that employees in special classes such as disabled people and waitstaff (subject to a “wait wage” far lower than the federal minimum wage) should receive equal treatment.

Their lobbying may be paying off with yet another attempt in Congress to ban the exploitation of low-wage labor in the United States, as Republican Congressman Greg Harper introduced a bill in February to abolish the Special Wage Certificate Program (subminimum wages for disabled workers have come up in Congress in 2010, 2011, 2012 and before — it’s not new, in other words). It’s in the news this week thanks to a study showing that Goodwill employees with impairments can earn as little as 22 cents an hour compared to the International CEO’s annual salary of $729,000 — regional CEOs earn as much as $500,000 for their work.

To understand subminimum wage laws and what’s going on with Goodwill, it helps to backtrack a little and discuss the sheltered workshop model of employment for disabled people. Historically, disabled people were often deemed unfit to work and lead active lives in their communities. At the turn of the 20th century, advocates began fighting for job training for disabled people, intending to create a system where people could acquire real job skills they could use to develop independence.

That evolved into the now heavily-criticized sheltered workshop model, where instead of acquiring useful job skills, disabled people perform simple, repetitive tasks like parts assembly, organizing clothes at facilities like Goodwill, and simple furniture repairs. In some regions, they receive a full wage for their work, often though a grant, in a program known as supported employment. People in supported employment programs receive part of their wage from their employers, and part through the program, which allows a company to receive unskilled labor at a low cost.

In other cases, they’re paid subminimum wage under special labor laws that allow for reductions in wage in reflection of the belief that disabled people can’t perform the same work nondisabled people are capable of. The argument is that employers should be allowed to calibrate their wages on the basis of the amount of work a hypothetical nondisabled person could do, adjusting downward to reflect the lower skills of a disabled worker. Notably, such productivity-based pay does not extend to nondisabled workers. Consequently, disabled people can receive pennies on the dollar when compared with nondisabled people, and this blatant discrimination is all totally legal.

This system has been sharply criticized by numerous disability rights organizations on the grounds that it enforces poverty, traps disabled people in low-wage jobs and is deeply dehumanising. Given the low employment rate for disabled people, employers justify it with the argument that without sheltered workshop and subminimum wage programs, they wouldn’t be able to hire disabled workers, because they’d be too expensive to take on. They view employment as a form of charity, suggesting it’s “fulfilling” to disabled workers, rather than a legitimate job, as it is for nondisabled people. That brings us to Goodwill, an organization that supposedly supports disabled people, yet hypocritically radically underpays them while its executives make hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, a strange situation for a supposed charity.

While Goodwill has been criticized for its practices for years, a high-profile report released by NBC may be the spur needed for actual reform not just to the charity’s practices, but also to subminimum wage laws in general. This is a critically needed reform, because sheltered workshop models are ripe for abuse, as seen for example in the Henry’s Turkey Service case, where intellectually disabled workers were not just paid subminimum wage, but also kept in inhuman conditions and effectively treated like slave labor.

Until disabled people are valued as full human beings and legitimate employees, such abuses are going to continue, and those abuses are also going to filter into the public consciousness and social attitudes about disabled people.

It’s hard to achieve independence when you’re making 22 cents an hour. Sign the petition to support a fair wage for all Goodwill employees.


Image credit: TownePost Network


Nick Andrews
Nico S3 years ago

Still sad...

J. J.3 years ago

Disability doesn't mean inability - Signed.

Cynthia B.
cynthia l3 years ago

This is criminal besides shameful. While it may not be all Goodwill stores, the very thought is enough to stop me from shopping/donating there. I usually donate most of my clothing to Marjaree Mason Womens Shelters or churches. No one should be treated inhumanely, no one.
I was donating to VA but went in there and what they are charging people in need is shameful so I stopped donating there. I will further investigate this loophole.

Jenevieve P.
Past Member 3 years ago

I happen to meet someone on the bus the other day who is a manger for the Goodwill. We talked briefly about the article, as he said,.."Ah yes, I heard some thing about that. Personally, I think they should give me al the money to babysit these people!"

I'm sorry, but I found the remark that this individual made to be so disgusting that I will never walk into a Goodwill again! I don't care what services they provide!

Melinda K.
Past Member 3 years ago

Thankyou, signed.

Dandelion G.
Dandelion G3 years ago

Petition Signed

I'm all about giving those who need a break the opportunity to have work and enter the job market but when I read that the executives and CEO's of Goodwill make six figure salaries or millions and can't even pay these people at least minimum wage I get enraged.

Disgraceful and I've supported Goodwill for a long time by donating clothes and such to them, thinking I was helping those needing an opportunity to be in the work environment and gain experience and to feel better about their own self worth and I read their self worth was lowered by these awful time studies and low pay.

The CEO's argument that it makes some of the disabled feel better to be working and contributing. Well I can say the same thing about a lot of people and a job they may have. Doctors go into their professions to help and save people, Teachers get a satisfaction out of their profession with children, those who perform on stage enjoy entertaining others, comics like to hear people laugh, all of those get satisfaction but would they accept being paid below minimum wage?

Stanley R.
Stanley R3 years ago

Lucky to have a job I say, perhaps $9/hr is justice for our most vulnerable. Shame on Goodwill.

GGma Sheila D.
GGmaSheila D3 years ago

It's about time the disabled are paid a fair wage. This should never have been allowed to happen in the first place. Goodwill just built a brand new store in our town. If they had the money for that and the over-inflated salary of the CEO, they can shell out fair wages to their workers.

Jenevieve P.
Past Member 3 years ago

Sorry, got cut off. (I wish Care 2 would let you know what the character allowance is!!)
As I was saying,.. As for the cleanliness of Goodwill,.. each store is managed differently, but they are striving to up their presentation and orderliness.
Here in Albuquerque, Thrifts store are HUGE MONEY! The vast majority of demographics are so poor, as the a lot of positions that require a degree, pay HALF of what any other state would pay. Some folks WITH DEGRESS are taking fast food and retail jobs because they pay more than salaried jobs. The grocery stores are charging as much as what is found in Honlolulu! Albuquerque IS NOT A LANDLOCK STATE! Rent and utilities continue to climb becoming unaffordable! Department stores are becoming a place for the rich.
For this reason, people are flocking to thrift stores. Household items such as bed linens are flying off the shelves! I would agree with you though, that Goodwill, (and alot of thrift stores are decrepid and depressing!)

Jenevieve P.
Past Member 3 years ago

To Haniel: it is a misconception that those on Si and SSDi can only make a certain amount per year. You are right in one way, but the the real facts are these, (as I mentioned for before for those in question that might be on social security due to a disability or illness.)
A.) If one wants to know how much they can make, they need to contact their local Division of Vocational Rehabilitation office. They usually have a traveling Social Security advocate who will advise you and help you set up your plan with the SSA.
B.) If you attempt to go back to work, you are allowed 9 trial work periods, for which you WILL NOT LOSE your benefits. You also get to keep your medical benefits, and if you have a service animal, the SSA will pay for its needs.
Here in New Mexico, Goodwill is a HUGE contributor for job rehabilitation that supports a minority popuilation an the contributing factors that had led one to need vocatinal support that they are not successful with through the state Worf Force Solution Division.

As for the Goodwill article, I am in question as to the reality of workers being paid an average of 22 cents per hour. If that were true, the CEO would be jailed for slave labor. The only way that this could be true is due to the calculated funds that are put into an individuals IEP plan. The CEO's salary has to be coming from stock invest profit as well profit gain AFTER the years divided budget is alotted for all its divisions.
As for the cleanliness of Goodwill.