FORT WORTH, Texas — Goodwill Industries International takes pride in providing jobs to severely disabled people who might well not otherwise get work.
Its mission includes "eliminating barriers to opportunity and helping people in need reach their full potential."
One of its key tools is a little-known provision in federal law that lets it hire impaired workers at less than minimum wage.
Almost 65 of Goodwill Industries' autonomous U.S. regional offices, including the one that serves Tarrant County, use Section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. It was created to help significantly disabled people find work.
Goodwill says it employs 7,300 people under the provision nationwide. Because pay is based on production, their average hourly wage is $7.47, or 22 cents higher than the current minimum wage, Goodwill says.
The National Federation of the Blind, however, finds the practice distasteful and wants Goodwill to end it. The group is calling for a public boycott of the Baltimore-based nonprofit's stores and a halt to donations.
The 50,000-member advocacy group for the blind, whose six-day annual convention started Saturday in Dallas, fired its first public-relations shot against Goodwill in early June.
"That Goodwill Industries exploits many of its workers in this way is ironic, because its president and chief executive officer [Jim Gibbons] is blind," President Marc Maurer said. "Goodwill cannot credibly argue that workers with disabilities are incapable of doing productive work while paying its blind CEO over half a million dollars a year. Goodwill should be ashamed of such blatant hypocrisy."
The federation also said it supports House Resolution 3086, the Fair Wages for Workers With Disabilities Act, which was filed in 2011 and would phase out the 1938 provision.
In response, Goodwill released a statement saying it "has trained millions of people for jobs" since 1902 "and is the leading nonprofit provider of job training, employment placement programs and community-based services for people who face challenges to finding employment."
It said that 79 percent of the disabled people in the U.S. don't have a job and that the 1938 provision "enables Goodwill and thousands of other employers to provide opportunities for people with severe disabilities who otherwise might not be part of the workforce."
Goodwill also said it supports changes in the law "so long as the right of people with disabilities to maintain employment of their choice is preserved."
Maurer fired back immediately, calling Goodwill's position "a false choice" between low pay and no pay and saying the way to employ more disabled workers is to create and enhance programs, "not to exploit [workers] in subminimum-wage sweatshops."
'Sense of pride'
Goodwill is not alone in its use of the provision. As of Sept. 7, the date of the most recent list available, four other agencies in Fort Worth had minimum-wage certificates from the Labor Department's Wage and Hour Division.
Among them is Expanco, which has 130 daily workers who perform tasks like packaging, light assembly and order handling, public relations manager Dena Walts said. Expanco divides some jobs into steps, and the more steps an employee can master, the higher the pay. A few employees make more than the minimum wage.
The company also has a document-destroying center, but those employees do not fall under the special certificate.
If Section 14(c) were drastically altered, Walts said, it would hurt business operations as well as customers, employees and caregivers.
Though they are mentally or physically disabled, Walts said, the workers take their jobs seriously, resulting in customer satisfaction.
"They are just like everybody else," she said. "They're taxpayers. They have savings. They feel a big sense of pride at what they do."
At Goodwill Industries of Fort Worth, most of the nearly 600 employees are disabled, said David Cox, senior vice president of retail sales and marketing. Most hold regular positions that pay minimum wage, which has been $7.25 an hour since July 2009, or more.
A few employees are too severely disabled to hold a regular job, so they participate in contract work at sheltered workshops in Fort Worth and Grapevine. They are paid for simple repetitive tasks like packaging, assembly, sorting, collating and mailouts. Career counselors help them work to their fullest potential and provide holistic services including socialization and daily living skills, Goodwill says.
Less than 1 percent of them can live independently, Cox said. The counseling helps the rest of the workers become more independent, he said, but they "very rarely achieve full independence. The vast, vast majority of participants in this program live in group homes, foster care or with family."
The jobs these workers do would not be open to applicants of lesser disability, Cox said. The workers are so impaired -- some have the development level of a 6- or 7-year-old -- that they would not find a job with a regular employer, even with adaptive assistance, he said.
Many cannot focus on their job for an entire shift, so they are offered the choice between working or participating in other activities like puzzles or arts and crafts, said Kimberly Smith, senior vice president of staffing services.
In most cases, families are grateful that their loved one has something to do besides sit at home. "We've seen how it can be life-changing for them," said Kristen Bostick, manager of marketing communications and event planning.
And, as required by law, the special wage arrangement is clearly communicated.
"It is explained to them and their families that they are paid based on what they do," Smith said.
Minimum-wage certificates must be renewed every two years through the Labor Department's Wage and Hour Division, and each worker's productivity must be evaluated and pay adjusted at least every six months.
At least once a year, the certificate holder must survey the local prevailing wage for a nondisabled worker performing the same tasks. That wage is used to calculate the disabled worker's wage, based on the amount of work done.
Because of the paperwork involved, Smith said, most employers don't apply for the special certificate.
If the special wages went away, Cox said, "it would certainly affect our ability to serve this population."