June 27, 2014

Why We Should Support Local Second-Hand Shops (& not Goodwill). ~ Eli Ronick


Perhaps it was the principle of salvaging someone else’s stuff or giving away my own things for someone else to use, or possibly just the altruistic name, but Goodwill appealed to me immediately and often when I was a student in college and in the years after as well.

Whether searching for cheap, second-hand kitchen appliances, the perfect costume or any of the other random, wonderful things that can be found in the more 2,500 retail stores in the US and abroad, I was always left with a positive feeling while shopping at the store.

That is, until I discovered recently that many of the smiling employees whose faces are so prominently displayed on seemingly every Goodwill store’s walls are paid below the minimum wage. Or, better put, many employees do not even make half the minimum wage of $7.25. Some don’t even make a $1/hour.

To better understand how such a thing could possibly be legal, which it is, requires a look 75 years back in time. In 1938, Congress passed The Fair Labor Standards Act after persistent effort from then-President FDR. The US Department of Labor website, in recounting how the act was passed, cites numerous instances at the time of factory workers making $10/week and other cases of employers taking advantage of their workers.

It was a groundbreaking act and also included time-and-a-half pay for overtime work. While these causes are certainly just, what you won’t find on the website’s historical analysis is talk of a small Section 14(c), which authorizes employers, after receiving a certificate from the US Department of Labor, “to pay employees less than minimum wage.”

It further states that those employees included in 14(c) are those “impaired by a physical or mental ability.” In other words, a legal framework was rendered to pay physically or mentally impaired employees below the minimum wage.

In 1938, the US was still in the depths of the Great Depression and some have speculated that 14(c) was implemented in large part to increase the amount of cheap labor as the country was engaged at the time in sending ammunitions to the Allied Forces in World War II.

In the United States of today, though, these measures are more clearly seen for what they are: outright discrimination.

In the past few years the practices of Goodwill and other organizations that use this legal loophole to pay their employees below minimum wage has caused much debate. The journalist, John Hrabe, wrote a story for the Huffington Post detailing the escalating corporate executive salaries of Goodwill and below minimum wage compensation of many of its workers, dubbing the issue “Goodwill’s charity racket,” as the company is a non-profit and thus exempt from taxes.

According to Hrabe, 7,300 of Goodwill’s 105,000 employees earn less than minimum wage with some making as little as 22 cents per hour. A short time later, NBC News broadcasted an investigation entitled, “Disabled workers paid just pennies an hour.” Goodwill CEO Jim Gibbons countered with an article of his own on HuffPo in which he maintained that 14(c) allows Goodwill and other companies “to provide opportunities for people with severe disabilities who otherwise might not be a part of the workforce.”

With all of the attention paid recently to President Obama and his push to increase the appallingly low federal minimum wage of $7.25, it seems like as good a time as any to focus on organizations that still don’t pay their employees even the minimum wage.

Support the National Federation of the Blind and nearly fifty other organizations linked to people with disabilities and support legislation in boycotting Goodwill. I urge you to turn your support away from Goodwill in donating to, and buying from, local second-hand shops. Perhaps the best way to support all of those kind, smiling faces, every bit deserving of the minimum wage as any of us, plastered all over the walls of your local Goodwill store is to take your business elsewhere and support measures to do away with Section 14(c).



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Editor: Travis May

Photo: Flickr/Lucy Kalantari

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