I thank my friend and fellow autism writer, speaker, and advocate James Williams for drawing my attention to the pay scandal at Goodwill Industries. Like many sheltered workshops for disabled people, the Goodwill Industries pays many of its disabled workers much less than minimum wage. This discriminatory policy is legal in the U.S. because disabled people are not considered worthy of being paid even minimum wage, let alone a living wage. The justification for this discrimination was written into the Depression-era Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938. Thus, the New Deal included a foundational document which legalized discrimination against disabled people, and which created two classes of Americans: "normal" people who are entitled to labor market protections and disabled people who are denied these rights. This legalized discrimination only reinforces and strengthens society's prejudices against disabled people and also makes it much easier for employers to continue to systematically exclude autistic and other disabled people from living wage jobs.
Under Section 14(c) of the law, employers can apply for an exemption certificate which allows them to pay disabled workers less than the minimum wage. University of Michigan law professor Samuel R. Bagenstos wrote a policy brief attacking this policy for the National Federation for the Blind. In 1986, Congress made the law even worse by removing any floor on the pay of disabled workers subjected to the policy (Bagenstos, p. 4). Thus, disabled workers who are subjected to this approach are not entitled to any wage protections whatsoever. A 2001 report from the General Accounting Office found that 95% of disabled workers subjected to this blatant form of discrimination are in sheltered workshops run by non-profit agencies such as Goodwill Industries and not in private industry (Bagenstos, pp. 4-5). Also the law has created a boom in the sheltered workshop industry, which has expanded from less than 150 such workshops in 1934 to 2,500 such workshops with 300,000 employees today (Bagenstos, p. 5).
The most humiliating aspect of the policy is a practice called a time study. Employers determine the amount of time it takes for a disabled worker to perform a given task and then compare it with the amount of time it would take a non-disabled worker to do the same work. The wages of disabled employees rise and fall every 6 months based on the outcome of such studies. Non-disabled workers in corporate environments are not subjected to such a policy, and so disabled workers should not be forced to endure it either.
The time studies are a source of enormous pressure for some workers at Goodwill. Sheila Leigland, who is blind, once earned $3.50 per hour hanging clothes for four years at Goodwill. But after her knee surgery, her wage was cut to $2.75 an hour. She quit her job because it no longer even covered the costs of her transportation.
Goodwill Industries has now been exposed for participating in this abusive labor practice against disabled workers. Not all Goodwill Industries facilities engage in this policy, but 7,300 employees out of 105,000 at this non-profit firm are subjected to the policy. Some Goodwill facilities in Pennsylvania paid workers as little at 22, 38, and 41 cents an hour in 2011. Goodwill of the Columbia Williamette paid some workers just $1.40 an hour. In San Diego, the lowest-paid workers were paid just $3.32 an hour at Goodwill.
Some highly educated but disabled workers are forced to endure this form of discrimination. Harold Leigland, 66, a blind worker with a college degree and a former massage therapist, currently earns $5.46 in a Goodwill facility in Montana. He says,"We are trapped. Everybody who works at Goodwill is trapped." He feels forced to work in these types of abusive labor conditions because he knows no other employer will hire him due to discrimination. Similarly, a college-educated woman with cerebral palsy was assembling rubber mats for $3 per hour, according to a former federal rehabilitation commissioner.
Goodwill is not the only agency which engages in this form of discrimination. The Helen Keller National Center, a New York school for the blind, also participates in this practice. Students at the school earned $3.97 an hour to $5.96 per hour at the Applebee's in Westbury, NY. Students at the school also earned $3.80 an hour to $4.85 an hour at the Barnes & Nobles in Manhasset, New York. I imagine that Helen Keller would turn over in her grave if she knew that a school named after her was perpetrating employment discrimination against disabled people.
Thus, while I support the proposal to boycott Goodwill for its abusive labor practices against disabled people, the problem goes much deeper and requires a more systemic solution. The only long-term answer is for the disability community to come together in a united fashion and campaign to pass a a bill which would eliminate the discriminatory practices which are allowed under current laws. This policy continues because it is legalized and institutionalized discrimination, and thus the disability community must work together to end it. The wage exemptions for disabled people under current laws must end because they are unjust and designed to promote discrimination and prevent disabled people from earning a living wage. Rep. Greg Harper (R-Miss.) has sponsored a bill to end this discrimination. He said,"Meaningful work deserves fair pay. This dated provision unjustly prohibits workers with disabilities from reaching their full potential."
I thank the National Federation of the Blind and the Autism Self-Advocacy Network (ASAN) for their activism on this issue. Andy Voss, ASAN President for Sacramento,CA,said,"It is appalling that organizations that purport to
assist workers with disabilities in job training, would hold them back by
circumventing the standard of living that minimum wage provides other American
workers." I also encourage the broader autism and disability communities to join the struggle against the payment of sub-minimum wages to disabled people in sheltered workshops. The longer term goal should also be to move as many disabled people as possible away from sheltered workshops and toward competitive employment. The presence of sheltered workshops is an inherent form of segregation and an invitation to exploitation and exclusion. Thus, the aims of the disability community should include the gradual abolition of sheltered workshops and the integration of disabled people into the mainstream workforce.