Goodwill’s Abuse of Disabled Workers: Bloated Corporate Salaries and Underpaid Employees

Like countless others, I have memories of Goodwill that go back about as far as I can remember. It provided clothing when my family hit hard times (and then again when I got too punk for the department store), my first and last pair of ski boots, a crazy 3D rendition of The Last Supper just because; plus countless odds and ends when moving out for the first time, and then some very hip pieces of furniture during more recent moves. Every time I purchased something there, or made a more direct donation, I was under the impression that I was doing something good for someone else. At the very least I felt that I was prolonging the lives of items that would otherwise needlessly wind up in a landfill—and I was. But I’ll likely never set foot in a Goodwill again, as whatever it used to have invested in people has since mutated into corruption of the worst kind.

Right here in Oregon, we have Goodwill CEO Michael Miller. Back in 2004 the Oregon Department of Justice investigated his pay in response to a filed complaint and an inquiry by The Oregonian. Making what I don’t mind calling an insane $831,508 annually, the hammer was dropped after a year and a half, reducing his pay to just a bit under $635,000. The basis of this decision was that he was being paid too much for heading up an organization filed as a non-profit. And I tend to agree. I don’t remember learning anything in ethics class that suggested it was okay to dip into the collection plate before sharing it with the needy. But that’s all in the past.

Or is it? Over the last few years Miller’s salary has crept back up, exceeding $715,000 a year. But hey, a man’s gotta eat, right? And he only makes more than double that of Oregon’s second-highest paid non-profit CEO (Steven Bass of OPB). And only 44 percent more than the third-highest paid executive, Neal Keny-Guyer of Mercy Corps (which is two-and-a-half times the size of Goodwill in the state). In Miller’s defense, however, his brother works for Goodwill in Wisconsin and damn near cleared a million dollars in 2009.

Alright, a bloodsucking executive structure does not a terrible corporation make (actually, it sort of does). But what about paying the disabled substandard wages simply because they can? Freedom of Information Act requests by the National Federation of the Blind last year exposed Goodwill for paying some of its employees less than one dollar per hour. Although this is perfectly legal due to an outdated Fair Labor Standards Act—which states that certified employers can pay “wages less than the Federal minimum wage to workers who have disabilities for the work being performed”—how else can a reasonable person describe this but as disgusting? Nationwide, Goodwill has 7,300 employees that work under a minimum wage exemption. There are plenty of similar businesses with far less income that still manage to pay their employees fairly.

To quote e-sales Manager Dylan Lippert after auctioning off a Salvador Dali piece found in a Tacoma Goodwill, “Every once in awhile something like this reminds us of how important what we do is. This is funding 10 scholarships for people with disabilities and barriers to employment. It’s amazing.”

Or is it funding bloated corporate salaries while people with disabilities make less in a day than a line cook at a burger joint makes in an hour? Despite no word from local Corvallis Goodwill sites (they declined to comment), there’s no shortage of information out there to help us all answer that question for ourselves. And when we do have an answer, there’s a powerful collective message that we as consumers can send to corporations like Goodwill that have built an empire on charity and use their power to game the system as well as their patrons.

by Johnny Beaver

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