On the factory floor at Goodwill Industries of South Florida, cerebral palsy doesn’t stop Donnie Williams from stitching one button hole after another into the military trousers the Miami non-profit makes for the Pentagon.
But workplace productivity calculations did conclude the disability prevents the 58-year-old from stitching as many button holes as would someone without the condition. As a result, Williams earns $4.22 an hour, according to a Goodwill supervisor, about 45 percent below Florida’s minimum hourly wage of $7.79.
The gap is allowed under a federal program designed to create jobs for people with significant disabilities, both as a way to train them for a spot in the workforce and to help them lead more active lives. Disclosure forms show Goodwill in recent years paid some workers in Miami and Fort Lauderdale less than 40 cents an hour, while the average wage hit $4.76 for nearly 300 garment workers like Williams in the program.
Williams started at Goodwill nine years ago, and said the job treats him well. “I like working here,” he said during a brief interview at his sewing station. “I enjoy the people.” As for his paycheck, the Miami Gardens resident said part of it goes to pay rent and that he puts some of it away when he can. “I try to save it a little bit,” he said.
About 3,000 organizations across the country use the program, which has come under national scrutiny this summer on the heels of a critical NBC News report and a revived effort by advocacy groups to end the practice. A congressman in Mississippi with an adult son with a disability has introduced legislation to end the program. Critics contend the low wages help sustain charity executives’ six-figure salaries, and discourage the organizations from trying harder to move disabled workers into regular jobs
“Even a person with a significant disability can do one thing and do it well,” said Anil Lewis, director of advocacy for the National Federation of the Blind. “Goodwill says they train people with disabilities. But if they’re still getting sub-minimum wages, how is that training?”
South Florida Goodwill executives note only about 400 of their 2,500 workers earn the sub-minimum wages allowed by the federal program, and that the lower payroll costs allow them to employ far more people with disabilities than they could otherwise afford.
“Could we operate with people earning 100 percent” of a regular wage, asked Dennis Pastrana, president of Goodwill of South Florida’s since 1979. “Yes. But we would have to eliminate the people who have limited abilities ... Many of them will not be employable anywhere.”
South Florida Goodwill reported serving more than 4,000 people last year, with revenues topping $93 million. The non-profit and other organizations using the program say the low wages make easy targets but that critics ignore the steep challenge of finding productive jobs for people with significant disabilities. “It’s really easy to say, ‘Oh, my gosh, they’re not paying the minimum wage,’ ” said Michael Messer, president of Miami’s the Arc of South Florida, which runs a packing center that employs people with disabilities and is not affiliated with Goodwill. “But I want as many people as possible to be in the program.”