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Goodwill is able to sell the products made by these workers to the federal government and to private industry. It is therefore obvious that these workers are making quality products, and they should therefore be paid real wages for doing real work. People with disabilities who are being paid pennies per hour do not have jobs. They cannot lose what they do not have. Effort should be focused on finding them real jobs that pay real wages, or focused on training them for such jobs. We applaud all Goodwill affiliates that are paying at least the federal minimum wage, but the fact is that they are still part of an organization that has an official policy of allowing subminimum wage payments.
Section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act, passed in 1938, allows the Secretary of Labor to issue special wage certificates that allow Goodwill and other employers of workers with disabilities to pay these workers less than the federal minimum wage. There is no “floor” under the subminimum wages that these workers can be paid. The National Federation of the Blind has obtained information from the Department of Labor that some Goodwill employees with disabilities earn as little as twenty-two cents an hour.
Goodwill is one of the most lucrative and well-known charities in the United States. It claims that 101 of its 165 affiliates are already paying at least the federal minimum wage to employees with disabilities. In addition to its manufacturing operations, Goodwill profits through its thrift stores, which resell donated goods; thus, Goodwill is in a better position than most to set a good example by abolishing the practice of paying disabled workers subminimum wages. Yet Goodwill opposes any change to the law that allows this practice and has made it clear that it has no intention of changing its policies.
The Fair Wages for Workers with Disabilities Act (H.R. 3086), which is supported by the National Federation of the Blind and nearly fifty other organizations of people with disabilities, has been introduced in the United States House of Representatives by Congressmen Cliff Stearns of Florida and Tim Bishop of New York, and has eighty additional co-sponsors. Goodwill might assert this as its mission, but the data show that less than 5 percent of workers with disabilities working in subminimum wage work environments transition into real jobs. Moreover, research shows that many of the skills acquired in a sheltered, subminimum-wage work environment must be unlearned in order for a worker with a disability to obtain competitive, integrated employment.
Some argue that there are those individuals who are so severely disabled that they cannot be competitively employed. New strategies evolve every day that prove this statement to be false. Subminimum wage labor provides neither tangible nor intangible benefits. There are no tangible benefits because the pay is too low. There are no intangible benefits because the low pay tells the workers that they are inferior to people who earn the minimum wage or higher and constantly reinforces this false belief. This can lead only to a downward spiral of demoralization and despair. If there are truly individuals too severely disabled to perform competitive work, it does not follow that employment at subminimum wages is the best outcome for these individuals. There is a better reality that we can provide for these individuals than toiling away, day after day, for pennies an hour.
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