Employees of Goodwill Industries International aren’t unionized. But, that won’t stop one of California’s most powerful labor leaders from championing the cause of workers with disabilities, many of whom are paid less than the federal minimum wage.
“While I’m grateful for the work Goodwill does to support the disabled community, compensating workers at subminimum wage levels makes me uncomfortable,” Gonzalez said. “I look forward to pursuing the issue of pay equity between the people with disabilities who are working at Goodwill and the organization’s executives so that compensation practices are in line with Goodwill’s mission of empowering the disabled.”
The secondhand clothing giant has come under fire for its controversial employment practices. More than 100 Goodwill entities nationwide employ workers through the Special Wage Certificate program, a Depression-era loophole in federal labor law that allows organizations to pay sub-minimum wages to people with disabilities. In May, a Watchdog.org investigation revealed that these same Goodwill entities that use the special wage program simultaneously spent $53.7 million in total executive compensation.
Under Section 14 (c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, employers can apply for a special wage certificate that allows them to hire people with disabilities at a subminimum wage. Nationally, more than 300,000 workers are subject to the law. Goodwill uses the special minimum wage exemption to take advantage of 7,300 of its 105,000 employees.
Meanwhile, top executives rake in the big bucks. Goodwill of Southern California, according to the May 2013 Watchdog.org investigation, paid more than $1.1 million in total compensation to its then-CEO, making him the highest paid Goodwill executive in the country. The month following the Watchdog report, an NBC investigation of Goodwill repeated the same findings.
While the organization cries poor when it comes to workers’ wages, it has no problem spending money on online advertisements defending its labor practices. Earlier this year, Google searches for “Goodwill worker wages,” “Goodwill wages,” “Goodwill pay,” and “Goodwill disabled,” all produced a sponsored ad, paid for by Goodwill, in the top search result.
In an effort to increase public awareness of Goodwill’s labor practices, the National Federation of the Blind and Autistic Self Advocacy Network sponsored a Change.org petition, which has gathered more than 170,000 signatures. In October 2013, the organizations delivered petitions to Goodwill headquarters and stores in Sacramento, CA; Providence, RI; New York, NY; Corpus Christi, TX; Rockville, MD; and Seattle, WA.
Last October, when Goodwill’s exploitation of disabled workers in California was first reported, Gonzalez publicly criticized the organization.
“Goodwill Industries has a noble mission; but, by undercutting the value of differently abled workers, they are doing a disservice to the very people they claim to be helping,” Gonzalez, the first woman and person of color to be elected to head the Labor Council, told me last year. “Anyone who believes that all work is dignified and all workers deserve fair treatment, has to be outraged by these practices.”