Over the weekend, I received an invitation from a Midwestern arm of Goodwill Industries to speak at their annual dinner. While I was honored by the invitation, I was unable to accept it. Given the nature of the reasons that I had to decline, I felt compelled to share my response here.

I am so grateful for your kind words about the blog and very much appreciate your request to speak at the dinner. Sadly, I can’t accept the invitation.

In researching Goodwill, as I try to do before agreeing to speak or associate myself with any organization, but particularly one that purports to serve or advocate for the disabled, I came upon justification after justification for paying disabled workers as little as twenty-two cents an hour. A quick Google search yields the following:

An NBC News investigation recently revealed that Goodwill Industries, which is among the non-profit groups permitted to pay disabled workers far less than minimum wage because of a federal law known as Section 14 (c), had paid workers as little as 22 cents an hour.

Now newly obtained federal documents show that at least 13 Goodwill franchises in 10 states paid 140 workers even less.

According to Department of Labor filings acquired via the Freedom of Information Act, two Goodwill franchises in Fort Worth, Texas paid 51 employees less than 10 cents an hour in 2011, with 14 earning just four cents an hour for tasks described as “assembly.”

Franchises in Michigan, Maryland, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Ohio, Florida, Wisconsin, Oklahoma, Virginia also paid employees 21 cents or less between 2008 and 2011, according to the documents. One franchise in Fairfield, Ohio paid a worker just three cents an hour for hanging clothes in 2008.

“The results of your FOIA request reinforce that people with disabilities are devalued in this situation and the operators of these programs are not keeping pace with the times,” said Clyde Terry of the National Council on Disability, an independent federal agency that advises the White House and Congress on disability policy.

“This may have been appropriate in the 1930s,” said Terry, “but in this day and age with the advances of technology, health care and education, is this the best we can do?”

*Source –…/more-disabled-workers-paid…

You might recall that back in February, when the President signed into law the minimum wage increase, it did not initially include disabled federal workers. I joined a chorus of voices beseeching the President to reconsider their exclusion, which, much to our delight, he ultimately did. This was part of what I wrote at the time:

A couple of weeks ago, Luau sent me a link to something that he said I needed to see. “Wait though,” he said, “until you’ve got the stomach for it.”

Knowing that I would probably never really have the stomach for it, I dove right in. This is what he had me watch.

Wage Against the Machine

Yes, Samantha Bee said, “Give me a picture of a person whose work would be worth $2 an hour,” and yes, Mr. Schiff responded with, “You know, somebody who might be, maybe somebody who is … uh … ya know, what is the politically correct word … uh … ya know, uh … for, ya know, mentally retarded … what’s the new word?” And yes, he also said that he “believes in the principles that the country was founded on,” and then went on to say, “I’m not going to say that we’re all created equal. You’re worth what you’re worth.”

I was horrified on too many levels to even bother with the hypocrisy of claiming to subscribe to our nation’s founding principles while contradicting, uh … ya know .. uh … this one …


{image of the Declaration of Independence highlighting the first sentence of the second paragraph which begins, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal …”}

To say that I don’t agree with this man’s ideology is sort of like saying that I don’t believe that the sun is made of butterscotch, because, well, it’s just not. And if it were it would melt and we’d all be covered in butterscotch. Then again, maybe that’s what killed the dinosaurs. Maybe someone should look into that. Anyway, moving on. The sun isn’t made of butterscotch andraising the minimum wage isn’t going to impede job growth. Now you know where I stand. I have no doubt that some of you would be happy to debate this with me, but it’s not really the point of this post. At all.

The point of this post is that if we ARE going to raise the minimum wage, as the President has promised to do this week via executive order, are we, as the civilized society that we claim to be, going to allow him to exclude people with disabilities from that raise? To put it another way, are we going to further institutionalize Mr Schiff’s idea that while everyone else is working for a living wage, the disabled should be satisfied simply with the pride of working?

In a blog post amid the disastrous press following Mr Schiff’s appearance, he wrote the following in order to contextualize his comments.

I further explained that since such individuals typically live with their parents or other caretakers, they are not working to support themselves or anyone else. They are working for the self-esteem associated with having a job — the pride of working and making a contribution. Many of the jobs they perform may seem mundane to those of normal intelligence, but they are often the most enjoyable and rewarding aspects of the lives of people with intellectual disabilities. I pointed out that if the federal minimum wages were to apply to them, a great many of those opportunities would vanish. Others may disagree, but I believe a job for such a person at $2 per hour is better than no job at all.

While I’d really like to write Mr Schiff off as an ignorant and outrageously insensitive zealot, his thinking is actually not only far more pervasive than we’d like to acknowledge, it’s actually supported by the law.

Screen shot 2014-02-08 at 8.31.19 AM

{Click on the image to read the text of the law exempting disabled workers from the minimum wage on the US Dept of Labor’s website}

I barely know where to begin to peel back the layers here. I suppose I’ll simply begin at the beginning.

“… since such individuals typically live with their parents or other caretakers, they are not working to support themselves or anyone else.”

He’s (sort of) right. People with disabilities do often live with their parents. Because without the ability to make a fair wage for their labor there are few other viable choices. There’s also no opportunity to save for the future, for the time that their parents inevitably die before them, as parents do. There’s also no opportunity to spend the money that they don’t earn, putting it right back into the economy and helping the Job Creators create more jobs. Nope, none of that can happen. Because pride doesn’t pay bills. But, according to Mr Schiff, that’s not really the point because ..

“They are working for the self-esteem associated with having a job — the pride of working and making a contribution. Many of the jobs they perform may seem mundane to those of normal intelligence, but they are often the most enjoyable and rewarding aspects of the lives of people with intellectual disabilities.”

As the mother of an autistic child a human being, this one is an emotional land-mine for me. I simply can’t wrap my head or my heart around the idea that my work is more valuable than my daughter’s because it might mean something different for me than it does for her. I’m not even getting into just how offensive the idea that a job would mean something more to her than it does for me, because my heart might explode right here if I do. If valuing labor based on enjoyment doesn’t strike any economist, or human being, as a giant butterscotch covered dinosaur, I don’t know what will.

Remember the old riddle, “Which weighs more: a pound of feathers or a pound of steel?” A pound is a pound no matter what it takes to make it, or how much it meant to the now-naked bird. Work is work. No human being is worth more or less than any other.


In the interest of assuring you that this view was not unique to this particular mom who one might argue lacks objectivity where the value of her child’s work is concerned (not unfairly, as I’m still convinced that her preschool artwork is worthy of the Louvre), I offer the following ..The Collaboration for the Promotion of Self Determination (CPSD) is a coalition of twenty-one disability rights groups. On Feb 4th, they sent the following letter to the White House and the Department of Labor. CPSD’s members were also joined by a number of broader civil rights groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the Japanese American Citizens League and the Service Employees International Union.

Dear Mr. President and Secretary Perez:
As national partners of the Collaboration to Promote Self-Determination (CPSD), we were pleased to read that you will soon be issuing an executive order to increase the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour for federal contract workers. At the same time, we are profoundly concerned by recent statements suggesting that workers with disabilities employed by government contractors with 14c certificates will not be covered by the new $10.10 minimum wage.

CPSD is an advocacy network of 21 national organizations who have come together to bring about a significant modernization of the federal adult system of services and supports for persons with disabilities.

As you know, many workers with disabilities are employed by government contractors, particularly those associated with the AbilityOne Commission. Government contractors who hold 14c certificates from the U.S. Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division have been permitted to pay less than minimum wage to workers with disabilities. We believe that all Americans should be afforded minimum wage protections, including those workers with disabilities.

Recent statements from the administration have suggested that employees with disabilities working for federal contractors with 14c certificates will be excluded from the new $10.10/hour minimum wage and will only benefit to a minimal degree in so far as their subminimum wage compensation will now be calculated as a portion of the higher minimum wage required by the executive order. We believe this is fundamentally unjust.

Mr. President and Secretary Perez, all employees of federal contractors should mean all employees, regardless of disability status. In the last several years, we have seen commitments from Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New York and Oregon to phase out the use of sheltered workshops – the primary setting where disabled workers are paid less than minimum wage. Vermont ended the use of both sheltered workshops and subminimum wage employment of people with disabilities in 2003. We believe this progress shows that it is both economically sound and morally just to ensure that people with disabilities have access to the same wage protections as those without. While a broader end to subminimum wage and Section 14c may require an act of Congress, we believe that the Administration has the authority to end the use of subminimum wage for employees of federal contractors immediately, through the use of the same executive order establishing the new $10.10/hour requirement.

Thank you again for your leadership and for serious consideration of our comments. We stand ready to work with you to align federal policies and financing to achieve the valued goal of integrated, competitive employment for all citizens with disabilities. It is our sincere hope that you do not leave the disability community behind in your forthcoming executive order.


American Civil Liberties Union
Association of Persons in Supported Employment
Autistic Self-Advocacy Network
Autism Society
Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law
Disability Power & Pride
Institute for Community Inclusion
Japanese American Citizens League
National Association of the Deaf
National Association of State Directors of Developmental Disabilities Services
National Coalition for Mental Health Recovery
National Council on Independent Living
National Down Syndrome Congress
National Fragile X Foundation
National Disability Institute
National Disability Rights Network
National Organization on Disability
National Organization of Nurses with Disabilities
Not Dead Yet
Physician Parent Caregivers
Quality Trust for Individuals with Disabilities
Service Employees International Union
United Spinal Association

Additional Signatories Added Since Release:

Good Jobs Nation/Change To Win
Sibling Leadership Network

Now, as I said, the government did the right thing. They listened and by the time the bill came to the President’s desk, disabled workers were included in the minimum wage order. Goodwill, it seems, has not followed suit. I implore you to follow our government’s lead. To pay a living wage to those who enable your executives to make far, far more than a living wage (like Goodwill International CEO Jim Gibbons who made $729,000 in 2011, or the CEO of Goodwill Industries of Southern California who earned $1.1 million and the top executive in Portland, Oregon who earned more than $500,000 in that year.)

I wish I could say yes. I wish I could come and speak about what it means to truly respect each and every human being’s dignity, humanity and yes, value. To talk about why it is so desperately important to create real job opportunities, to build environments that allow us to leverage strengths and mitigate disability. To design businesses that don’t just tolerate but derive their profit from diverse perspectives and out of the box thinking. But to take money for speaking that should have gone to someone like the Hagerstown, Maryland Goodwill “hand packager” who made 15 cents an hour in 2011 would be a betrayal of everything I believe in.

I desperately hope there will be a day in the not-distant future when you can come to me again and tell me that these things are no longer true. That the model has changed and that Goodwill is leading the charge for humanitarian treatment of disabled workers. When that happens, I will be proud and honored to accept the invitation. Until then, it’s not my voice Goodwill Industries needs to hear, but its workers’.

Thank you again for the invitation.


24 thoughts on “goodwill

  1. I… have no words (which is, perhaps, a bit like you having no words). Jess, this is the most gloriously-worded (as YOU do) example of standing up for what’s right and not what’s easy. The only words I have, and I sincerely hope they are enough and that you take them–thank you.

  2. You know more about the situation and the audience and I fully support your decision. Was the intended audience corporate (high level)? I am so glad you are a writer and your voice gets heard. Your letter and voice needs to be seen/ heard by more than the person who received your response.

    • Thank you for your kind words. It was a regional invitation. I honestly have no idea if the people there would be the policy makers or not.

  3. Thank you, Jess! In a society where so many women as a gender are still dealing with receiving a lower pay for the same job a man may be performing, this injustice to those that society deems somehow less valuable is outrageous! “All men are created equal” was not a new concept to the writers of the constitution, but an institution first established by our God and Creator Himself. Galatians 3:28 says, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Again, thank you Jess, for being a voice of justice! Blessings!

  4. Thank you for bringing this to my attention. I have always shopped and donated my clothes to Goodwill because they employed those with developmental disabilities, I didn’t realize they paid them so little. I will be taking my business elsewhere now.

  5. Tremendous respect not just for your decision, but for the way you researched/communicated it.

  6. What Paula said. You could have just politely declined. But you did the bold and brave thing by saying why, standing up for so many. One of the many reasons why I love you.

  7. Jess – through clenched teeth and a threatening stinging in my eyes, this NON-mom (although still admittedly biased toward, as you perfectly defined it, being a HUMAN BEING) would like to take your point one step further in response to Schiff’s ignorant comment of “… since such individuals typically live with their parents or other caretakers, they are not working to support themselves or anyone else.”

    Yes, many individuals with disabilities might live with support. Aside from the issue that you so eloquent addressed – that, if someone is being hired for a job and is performing to the expectations given, than they certainly deserve the exact same pay any anyone else who might perform said job – I also would like to add that, regardless of their shared living arrangement (family, group home, etc.), these individuals have their own costs of living that are usually quite substantial. In many cases, there are therapies and other medical appointments or perhaps specialized equipment required to sustain their best quality of life. As the disability in question could span a WIDE variety of situations, this could include transportation and physical housing modifications, wheelchairs or other mobility aids, communication devices, medications…and I would be remiss not to mention that they are likely to need support from other people – many of whom might love to volunteer their time doing so but have bills of their own to pay! Although the personal expenses or those that are incurred by their families as a result of their disability might not mirror what someone like Schiff might decree as “traditional” (mortgage, car payments…), that does not mean that they don’t need to be paid just the same. I know countless families who can speak to the formidable expenses that are associated with having a child with disabilities. As you also mentioned, living with mom and dad is not an option forever, so even if you choose to discount what that family might be sacrificing to make sure their child (of any age) is having their needs met, that situation won’t exist indefinitely. Housing, transportation, medical needs, food…these are the most basic needs that exist – and they just don’t come free.

    And don’t even get me started on the fact that individuals with special needs are equally deserving as anyone else of social experiences and leisure activities such as vacations, buying a birthday gift for a friend, going out to eat or bowling or to the movies or the gym or whatever else might strike their fancy. These are the things that can truly enrich our lives and help connect us to other humans, and without a source of income they are simply impossible.

    That is just my two cents in addition to my wholehearted agreement of your stand on the situation. Thank you for voicing what many of us do not have the platform to say, and thank you for standing up for what is RIGHT versus what is easiest.

  8. Well written and completely on-point! I am a professional social worker who is also a person living with a disability. I have a master’s degree in my field and I know I am worth more than what those idiots believe of me. I live on my own and pay my own bills. And their viewpoint about us enjoying jobs more..pride…blah blah nothing short of crap. They choose to see us in that light, when it is so far from true. However, I am just one of many that prove their views to be incorrect. Thanks for being such a strong advocate!

  9. I shared this story on my FB page this morning, expecting as much outrage as I have. I have twins who have autism, CP, epilepsy, and other issues. They are three and I worry every day about what the future holds for them. Instead of empathy and outrage, I was met with comments such as “why did the parents let them take the jobs?” “Where are their supposed caregivers??” And things to that nature. They blamed the parents. 😦 I feel so defeated and sad. Is this what I have to look forward to? Years of ignorant people assuming you’re not doing enough for your children? How are people missing the message that what these COMPANIES are doing is WRONG?!?

  10. Wow…I did not know this and will not be visiting our local Goodwill until they step up to the plate of fairness amd equality for all!! #asYouDo

  11. Thank you for this! It’s not such a leap from an inadequate minimum wage to 22 cents an hour, is it? If you can’t live on it, you can’t live on it. And CEO’s are NOT worth 50 times and more what line workers are worth, not by any stretch.

  12. I understand the concern. However, there is an issue with benefits. Many of the people who work with goodwill would have their medical and supplemental support systems reduced or eliminated if they were paid too much money. We have an enormous stratification system in our country. We also have very dedicated ideas of who the deserving poor are an who are not the deserving poor. Unfortunately, because of the distaste for those who are not “deserving,” our leaders have made policies that are not helpful. In order to really address this issues, we need to revamp our social service programs. We need to help people reduce their need for benefits rather than punishing them for working. It is impossible to live on a minimum wage job, but if you have a minimum wage job, the benefits that help you remain human are either drastically reduced or eliminated, as would be the case with many of the workers at Goodwill. If you want to remedy this situation, start with policies that work against people who are trying.

    Also, each Goodwill is independently managed. They are member agencies of Goodwill Industries International. Each Goodwill has their own Board of Directors, their own connections to the community. I just ask that you speak to your local Goodwill before making any decisions that will harm your local Goodwill and the good things they do in your community. Please investigate for yourself and come to your own conclusions.

  13. My son was placed for employment at Goodwill . . . It turned out to be his biggest setback thus far in life. He was treated with disdain and disrespect. He was given a job coach who belittled him and shamed him in front of his fellow employees. There was no repricussion for her actions.

    He was told he could increase his pay by increasing his productivity even though he was working hard and feeling pride, he was told it was not good enough.

    The powers that be, Goodwill, were unaccomidating and inflexible, even when our Regional Center representative fought for my son.

    The accommodations they initially afforded him were taken away without warning and he was expected to stop being autistic, that was the message he walked away with.

    It was a terrible experience he is still recovering from.

  14. Pingback: Minimum wage; not black and white | You Don't Say

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