By: Amanda Hart

This past Saturday I was on the hunt for bookshelves and stopped by the Goodwill located in the Heights. As I turned into the parking lot I was greeted with signs that read, “We need good jobs, not Goodwill.” I parked and made my way towards the picketers. Kimberly Flores, President of the National Federation of the Blind of Texas (NFTB), greeted me as I walked up. Ms. Flores explained to me that the protesters were asking for “Goodwill to stop paying subminimum wages to disabled employees.” Ms. Flores went on to say, “Goodwill participates in a special wage certificate program that allows them to pay people with disabilities as low as 22 cents an hour. Obviously we feel that is unfair, immoral, and discriminatory. We are encouraging people to not shop at their thrift stores until they discontinue this practice.”

In an email correspondence with the President of the NFTB Houston Chapter, Louis Maher, explained that, “Houston Goodwill President, Steven Lufburrow told me that the Houston Goodwill employs approximately 1,300 workers, 51 of whom are paid a sub minimum wage rate, which represents about 4% of the total Houston Goodwill employment.” So either Lufburrow is full of it and thought that making the numbers seem small would also make this issue seem insignificant, or Lufburrow has no soul and would rather pay people with disabilities 22 cents an hour (8 hour day = $1.76 per day before taxes) to keep the company’s salary cost down by a measly 4%. Either way you look at it, something is very unsettling about this.

I attempted to contact Mr. Lufborrow but he appears to be a little busy raking in an annual salary of $360, 748 and, to date, has not returned my email regarding his company’s practice of paying people with disabilities pennies an hour. And just in case you don’t have a calculator handy and would like a wage comparison, based on Lufborrow’s salary, he makes $187 an hour. James Gibbons, CEO of Goodwill, whose annual income totals $511,000 ($265 an hour) also seems to be quite happy with this pay disparity. Of the 165 Goodwill affiliated agencies in the country, 64 of them are federally certified and actively pay their disabled workers pennies a day.

So how does a nonprofit legally get away with such discriminatory practices? Section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) was passed in 1938 and was intended to protect people with disabilities by ensuring they had access to gainful employment. This section of FLSA allows the Secretary of Labor to grant special wage certificates that permit employers to pay disabled workers below minimum wage. 74 years later it appears that nonprofits are using it to exploit cheap labor, often in sheltered workshops. These task-oriented workshops allow employers to separate disabled workers from the non-disabled population and reportedly is where the bulk of exploitation occurs. According the a Federation of the Blind press release, this discrimination is rooted in the idea that disabled citizens are incapable of being productive employees, and creates an environment in which it becomes impossible for workers to be competitively employed or financially independent.

Legislation to end these unfair labor practices is in the works. H.R. 3086 – The Fair Wages for Workers with Disabilities Act of 2011 would revoke sheltered workshops from not only paying sub minimum wages but would also bring an end to legal segregation of the workforce. The practice of issuing special wage certificates would be abolished and would phase out current certificate holders over the next three years. Everyone deserves workforce protection including a federal minimum wage.

Many of us might not realize that it is not common practice to pay people the current minimum wage. Or that there was a need for society to demand that entities such as Goodwill pay their employees more than $1.76 a day. One way to get involved is by joining the National Federation of the Blind in their boycott of Goodwill. Another option would be to email the President of Goodwill Houston, Steven Lufborrow, who makes a weekly salary of $7,500, and let him know that you believe fair wages for all Texas employees is a necessity.