A national debate over equal pay for workers with disabilities reached Dover on Saturday when several members of the National Federation of the Blind demonstrated outside of two local Goodwill stores.
“We’re here to let people know that Goodwill is paying their disabled employees less than minimum wage, and in some cases as little as 22 cents an hour,” Verida Turner, president of the Southern New Castle Chapter of the National Federation of the Blind (NFB), said while handing out flyers at the Goodwill store in the Gateway West Shopping Center. “It’s sad and it’s wrong and we want it to stop.”
The protests outside the Dover store and the Goodwill at the Rodney Village Shopping Center were among nearly 80 similar actions that NFB members organized at Goodwill stores throughout the country from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday.
The goal of the demonstrations was to alert the public that some businesses are able to legally pay workers with disabilities less than the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.
Under the Fair Labor Standards Act, employers can obtain special permission from the U.S. Department of Labor to pay workers with disabilities a so-called subminimum wage.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s website, “Employment at less than the minimum wage is designed to prevent the loss of employment opportunities for these individuals.”
NFB and other groups are lobbying Congress to approve a bill that would phase out the 75-year-old exception over three years.
In the meantime, NFB is hoping to make an example out of companies that use the exception. They have focused on Goodwill, in part, because CEO Jim Gibbons is blind and earns more than $500,000 a year.
“Goodwill Industries is one of the most well-known charitable organizations in the United States, but most members of the general public are unaware that Goodwill exploits people with disabilities,” NFB President Marc Maurer said in a press release issued last week. “We are conducting informational protests to make the public aware of this practice that, although sadly still legal, is unfair, discriminatory and immoral.”
However, a spokesman for the local Goodwill affiliate said all of its disabled workers in Delaware already receive the federal minimum wage or higher, as well as access to health insurance and a retirement plan.
“Every one of the Goodwills in the United States and Canada are affiliated under the national organization, but we’re also independent of one another and each has their own board of directors and services their community in their own way,” said Ted Sikorski, the vice-president of marketing for Goodwill Industries of Delaware and Delaware County (Pa.), which operates both Dover-area stores. “Unlike some of the other affiliates, we have made the decision not to take advantage of the federal exception. For us, it doesn’t work, because we don’t believe it helps people help themselves.”
Page 2 of 2 - NFS member Lloyd Schmidt of Lewes said he was happy to hear that local Goodwill stores do not use submininum wages.
But, he said, greater public awareness of the issue is still needed.
“It’s not about just this Goodwill, or even Goodwills in Delaware,” he said. “It’s about changing the national law that says you’re less of a person, and deserve less pay, just because you’re disabled.”
After talking to protestors, Steven Wood of Smyrna opted against shopping at the Goodwill in Dover on Saturday.
“It’s the first I’ve heard of it, but my uncle is blind so I decided I didn’t need to shop here today,” he said. “I understand the concept behind [the use of sub-minimum wages] because it’s so hard for disabled people to find jobs in the first place, but I think they still deserve to at least make minimum wage.”