Thousands of Disabled Workers Are Making Pennies per Hour

July 1st 2015

Thor Benson

You may think you are being a good person when you go to Goodwill to shop. It's recycled clothing, and they have great programs for employing veterans and others who have trouble finding employment, including the disabled. However, it turns out many Goodwill stores are paying those disabled employees pennies on the hour.

Goodwill isn't alone either. While there isn't solid data concerning how much of this is trend is attributable to Goodwill, it is known that 95 percent of organizations or companies paying disabled workers less than the minimum wage are nonprofits such as Goodwill. More than 400,000 disabled citizens receive these low wages in the U.S., according to Rose Sloan, a government affairs specialist at the National Federation of the Blind. The pay can range from a few cents an hour to a couple dollars an hour in many cases. She told ATTN: that one-third of Goodwill-affiliated stores employ the disabled for subminimum wages, which makes her wonder why the one-third can't operate the same way as the other two thirds. She said the stores that pay subminimum wages do not seem to make a significantly higher profit from it, which makes it even more confusing that they are still doing it.

According to an NBC report from 2013, Goodwill stores that pay less than minimum wage decide how an employee will be paid based on testing them. In some cases, an employee will be asked to do certain tasks and will be timed to see how long it takes them. Based on how long it takes the employee compared to how long it takes a non-disabled employee, that's how their pay is decided.

The reason this is even possible is because of the Special Wage Certificate Program. This program was created in 1938 to make it possible for some employers to pay disabled people less than the minimum wage while they trained that employee to be capable enough to get to the point of being worth paying a minimum wage. It was essentially created to save employers money when they had to take longer to train someone. The minimum wage was 25 cents around then, which is equivalent to what some disabled workers earn today.

"Unfortunately, many people in society falsely believe that people with disabilities aren't as capable as people without disabilities," Sloan said, and she says that's not true. "Too many employers are not being creative enough to find a place for people with disabilities."

These disabilities can range from being blind to having a developmental disability. Sloan said that legally someone could be considered disabled for being elderly, but she has not encountered elderly people who are paid less than minimum wage.

"When society has those low expectations for [the disabled], it creates a continuum of low expectations," Sloan said. "When an entity is allowed to pay people with disabilities less than the minimum wage, and they take advantage of it, they think to themselves that a person with disabilities is only capable of so much."

The National Federation of the Blind has introduced a bill called the Transitioning to Integrated and Meaningful Employment Act, which would phase out the Special Wage Certificate Program over three years. The first year would end the practice in for-profit businesses, followed by government and public employers the next year and finally nonprofits such as Goodwill.

When ATTN: contacted Goodwill for comment, they said something similar to what they have told many news sources.

"Some Goodwill agencies use [the Special Wage Certificate Program] to help create vocational opportunities for people with disabilities that otherwise would not exist," a representative said via email. This is something Goodwill continually says when questioned about the program. The organization often claims these people would have nothing to do with their time if Goodwill didn't give them an opportunity. Sloan disagrees. She said that with the low wages these organizations are paying their employees, they might as well be volunteering elsewhere.

"Often times, the CEOs or presidents of these organizations might be making six digit figures for salary, and yet people with disabilities are being paid pennies per hour," Sloan said. "It's a huge injustice."