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Working In These Times

Tuesday, Aug 28, 2012, 4:10 pm

Blind Activists Boycott Goodwill Over Subminimum Pay

BY Bruce Vail

In Baltimore's historic Fells Point district, picketers march in support of the Goodwill boycott.   (Federation of the Blind)

BALTIMORE – The National Federation of the Blind (NFB) escalated its pay protests against Goodwill Industries with August 25 sidewalk pickets at some 90 retail locations around the country.

The informational pickets are aimed at publicizing the NFB call for a consumer boycott against Goodwill over its policy of paying subminimum wages to thousands of workers with disabilities.

NFB spokesperson Chris Danielsen says his organization has been able to document cases where Goodwill affiliates have paid disabled employees as little as 22 cents an hour.

In Baltimore–home to the NFB national headquarters–the protest took place on a busy Saturday afternoon in one of the city’s busy downtown tourist districts. With about 20 spirited picketers clustered around a storefront Goodwill outlet, the protest was effective in spreading the word to thousands of city residents and out-of-town visitors, Danielsen says.

“Our goal is not to harm Goodwill, or any of the people who work there. Our goal is to get the leaders of Goodwill to change their policies so all disabled workers are given the protection of the minimum wage laws,” he says

The August 25 picketing follows a June 7 call from the NFB for a national consumer boycott of Goodwill. That call arose from the NFB's efforts to change a portion of the federal Fair Labor Standards Act that exempts some disabled workers from the national minimum wage. Those efforts have been stymied, in part, by the high-profile lobbying of Goodwill Industries to keep the exemption in place, according to Danielsen.

“Goodwill isn’t the only organization that fails to pay minimum wage to disabled workers. But they are probably the best known to the general public, and their lobbying has carried a lot of weight in Congress,” Danielsen says. It is for these reasons that the NFB chose Goodwill as the target of the consumer boycott.

The picket in Baltimore was exasperating to Lisa Rusyniak, president of Goodwill Industries of the Chesapeake Inc., a regional affiliate of the national Goodwill organization. “The protest is not pertinent to us,” she told Working In These Times as she observed the picketing in front of the Baltimore store. Because the Chesapeake affiliate does not pay subminimum wage to any of its employees, she says, the picketing is unfair and undermines the good work done by Goodwill.

According to Rusyniak, all Goodwill regional affiliates are entirely autonomous in their labor and compensation policies. Her group, for example, employs about 160 people with disabilities who would qualify for exemption from the minimum wage. However, the regional policy is not to seek exemption, and the average hourly wage for those 160 workers is currently $11.50, she says.

The NFB Danielsen did not dispute Rusyniak’s assertions but suggests that she is missing the point. The NFB’s boycott is intended to call national attention to the law permitting sub-minimum wages for all disabled workers, he says, and to build support for changing the law. Furthermore, Danielsen says, regional Goodwill officials like Rusyniak are in a uniquely strong position to push for employment policy changes at the larger Goodwill organization.

Brad Turner-Little, a top official of the national Goodwill Industries Inc., defends the group’s policy without endorsing the specific pay practices of any of the affiliates. Some 30,000 disabled persons are employed by 165 affiliates in the United States and Canada, Turner-Little says. Of those affiliates, 64 have received certificates from the U.S. Department of Labor that allow them to employ workers at less than the minimum wage. Only about 7,400 individuals are currently covered by the labor department certificates, and the average hourly wage for them is $7.47, he says.

With the national minimum currently pegged at $7.25, the average wage for the select number of individuals covered by the certificates does not even fall below the minimum, he points out. Some of these disabled workers even support the exemption (http://www.goodwill.org/creating-jobs-improving-lives/) because of non-cash benefits associated with employment at Goodwill, he says.

These arguments also miss the point, Danielsen says. The minimum wage is already low by any standard, and blind and other disabled workers are entitled to decent compensation for their labor, he argues. All advocates for the rights of the disabled–especially Goodwill Industries–should be supporting the change to the subminimum wage law, he says.

Bruce Vail is a Baltimore-based freelance writer with decades of experience covering labor and business stories for newspapers, magazines and new media. He was a reporter for Bloomberg BNA's Daily Labor Report, covering collective bargaining issues in a wide range of industries, and a maritime industry reporter and editor for the Journal of Commerce, serving both in the newspaper's New York City headquarters and in the Washington, D.C. bureau.

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