Goodwill Industries of Southeast Texas President/CEO James Dreiling expected to miss a few calls and maybe a few office walk-ins while officials from the nonprofit attended a national Goodwill conference scheduled for late June into early July, but returning home to see The Examiner’s July 5 issue with an article highlighting activist calls for a Goodwill boycott really took the veteran do-gooder by surprise.“I was floored,” Dreiling said of seeing the cover story dubbed “Underpaid.” A phone call to the newspaper and some quick public relations was in order. “I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I was just so … shocked,” he said.
“Underpaid” highlighted a little-talked-about federal provision that allows certain certificate holders to pay workers with disabilities a wage below the federal minimum. Thousands of businesses and organizations across the country hold the certification, the most prominent among those entities being Goodwill International, the parent of Southeast Texas’ Goodwill. National Federation for the Blind activists have called for a boycott of businesses using the certification to pay sub-minimum wages to workers based on their perceived disability, including the Goodwill sites taking advantage of the provision, technically administered under Fair Labor and Standards Act (FLSA) Section 14(c).
Roughly 64 of Goodwill International’s 165 stores pay a wage below the minimum, as Freedom of Information requests have detailed. Some rates dip to $1.44 an hour, while others are even less. In an attempt to see how Goodwill Industries of Southeast Texas measured up to its cohorts, several attempts were made to seek comment – albeit during a time span encompassing late June into early July. However, soon after “Underpaid” hit the shelves and the national Goodwill convention enjoyed its last hoorah, the Goodwill Industries of Southeast Texas CEO reached out and touched base with The Examiner’s editorial staff.
“Being lumped in with people who pay sub-minimum wage is something we decided a long time ago we didn’t want to do,” Dreiling said, adding that the polarizing issue was also hotly debated at the national organizational meeting. According to Dreiling, the board that oversees Goodwill Industries of Southeast Texas made the call to not use the special certification offered under FLSA Section 14(c) at least a decade ago. “There was no sense in us even getting the certificate. There are a lot of Goodwills that have said they’re just not going to (pay sub-minimum wage.)”
Dreiling, who said he has worked at agencies that did employ the use of wage waivers under FLSA Section 14(c), emphasized that he enjoys working at an agency that is proud to offer a wage well above the minimum to employees regardless of any mental or physical disability. According to documentation provided by the local Goodwill CEO, employees of the agency average more than $9 an hour, many are offered health benefits, and none are paid a wage below the federal minimum.
The reason the local Goodwill chapter is able to pay a living wage, said Dreiling, is the community support offered to the nonprofit by way of donated goods and those patronizing the Goodwill boutiques.
“This is a very generous community,” he said. “We’re really fortunate. We are able to do the things we do because of the support we get, and I’d hate to lose that because donors think we don’t pay our workers a fair wage. We want people to know we’re doing the best we can with what we have.”
Dreiling said he feels there is a place for FLSA Section 14(c) exemption, but Goodwill Industries of Southeast Texas isn’t one of those places.
“We thought the best way to get (persons with disabilities) back to work was by employing them at least at a minimum wage,” Dreiling asserted. “And, they need more than just a job, but a place to belong. Your job is Teach them to fish.
“He may not be the best fisherman in the world, but at least he can feed himself,” Dreiling said of an employee who, in some arenas, would be paid a wage less than the minimum allowed under normal procedures. The worker, who has a mental disability that causes him to function a little more slowly than some, has been employed at Goodwill Industries of Southeast Texas for several years and provides for a family on the earnings. “There is some place for charity, but we want to teach self independence,” he said. “We give them the chance to go as far as they can go.”
Dreiling said in very few cases, a person might present disabilities Goodwill isn’t able to accommodate. For those situations, he is thankful Southeast Texas is also home to an organization like the Spindletop Center that makes use of it certificate.
“The law is what it is,” Dreiling said. “It can be used for good or bad, but I think the organizations around here are doing good.
“I really respect Spindletop for what they do. What happens to (persons with severe mental disability) if there aren’t places like Spindletop for them to go? I don’t know, except for they end up on the streets, or they get captured for doing something they didn’t know better not to do and end up in jail.
“There are some places where there isn’t any place for someone with a disability, and that’s an awful reality.”
Spokeswoman Janna Fulbright said Spindletop’s FLSA Section 14(c) workers are all classified as workers with intellectual and developmental disabilities, diagnosed prior to age 18, or are sufferers of major depression, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. While she admits that, on the surface, wages paid under FLSA Section 14(c) might seem unfair to some, the provision is allowing a vital function to be realized.
“Not everyone wants to work elsewhere, but if they do, we make that happen,” Fulbright said. Figures provided by Spindletop show that in fiscal year Sept. 1, 2010, through Aug. 31, 2011, more than 140 FLSA Section 14(c) workers were transitioned into competitive employment positions throughout the Golden Triangle.
“We have employees at local businesses in the area where our workers are, and they’re valued at those jobs and happy there,” Fulbright said. To assist with getting those outside jobs, Spindletop offers job interview training and support, references and even offers support services after job placement.
“Even board members have had relatives employed through our workshops,” Fulbright added. More clarification on Spindletop’s FLSA Section 14(c) workers can be found in The Examiner’s Letter to the Editor on page 18A.
FLSA Section 14(c) opponent and National Federation for the Blind spokesman Anil Lewis said Goodwill agencies like the one in Southeast Texas give his mission hope in that if this agency can employ persons with disabilities at a fair wage, then there must be a way for other businesses to do the same.
“Goodwill already says that 101 of their 165 agencies can make a business model work and pay a decent wage, and it is our belief they should require all of their agencies to do likewise,” he said. “And,” he added, “if Goodwill can do it, there’s no reason these other agencies can’t do it, as well.
“We’re not against workshops like Spindletop, but if there is going to be a segregated work environment then we, as a nation, as a community, need to find a way to pay these workers like we would pay anyone else. It’s just adding insult to injury to segregate them and then pay them less than everyone else.”
Still, on a high note, Lewis offered praise for the local Goodwill and Spindletop initiative.
“On the record, though, I want to commend them for what they’re doing,” Lewis said. “For the Goodwill that refuses to pay a sub-minimum wage even though they could, I applaud their efforts. And, although I do want to see [FLSA Section 14(c)] abolished, it is refreshing to hear of an organization at least using the exemption in the way it was intended and transitioning these workers into competitive employment.”
Jennifer Johnson can be reached at (409) 832-1400, ext. 231, or by e-mail at jennifer [at] theexaminer [dot] com.