Leading a tour on an early morning in November, Molly Gilgenbach – director of the “work services program” at Goodwill Industries of Southeastern Wisconsin – strolls through the various learning labs and classes meeting at the James O. Wright Center for Work and Training, a branching, low-slung building on North 91st Street that looks a bit like a high school. She’s warm, almost heartbreakingly upbeat. In a science classroom, where the lesson of the day is magnetism, she hugs an older blind man named Steve who’s known for his performance of “Love Potion No. 9” at the organization’s Goodwill Idol competition. He’s one of a group of employees Gilgenbach says she’s “most concerned about,” people with severe disabilities who have few opportunities to be productive. “They are not employable in the community,” she says, yet, through this program, some of these 170 men and women have worked their way to paying jobs at Goodwill stores.
The only catch is, the pay isn’t so good. These workers – and some 280 other Goodwill employees within the territory stretching from Sheboygan to Chicago – make an average of $4.30 an hour. A section of the Fair Labor Standards Act, passed during the Great Depression, permits employers to pay disabled workers based on their productivity, even if that means less than minimum wage.
Not all Goodwill organizations in the country make use of this loophole. Pat Boelter – chief marketing officer for the Southeastern Wisconsin organization, the largest of its kind within the Goodwill network – explains its use here by pointing to the program’s financial losses. “It’s more than a work program,” she says. Workers receive medical care, case managers, help from teachers. But is that enough to justify sub-minimum wage? No, says Ari Ne’eman, president and co-founder of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, a Washington, D.C., group run by adults with autism. “The problem is that people are profiting off the labor of Goodwill’s disabled employees,” he says of ASAN’s petition calling for better pay for disabled employees. “We were unhappy about how Goodwill’s actual business practices did not match their reputation.”
Other groups have rattled swords, including the chapter of the National Federation of the Blind local to Dane County, where the incumbent Goodwill organization pays all of its workers at least minimum wage. “If they can do it, why can’t all of them?” says the chapter’s president, Justin Salisbury.
Disability Rights Wisconsin wants to heighten oversight of programs that use the loophole while collecting federal funding. “Why is my tax dollar going to provide Goodwill and other programs of its type free labor?” asks Monica Murphy, DRW’s managing attorney.