On June 21, 2013, NBC aired a story entitled: “Activists Say Goodwill Exploits Workers with Penny Wages”, about the practice in some, but not all Goodwill stores of paying workers with disabilities wages far below the Federal Minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. The wage disparities are legal according to a provision in the Fair Labor Standards Act passed in 1938 and reflective of its time, a time in which sheltered workshops were quite common. Numerous disability advocacy organizations and individuals with disabilities have been asking Goodwill to cease this practice and to start paying employees with disabilities wages equivalent to employees without disabilities. It has also been pointed out numerous times that Goodwill has a $5 billion gross annual budget and that its CEOs are compensated quite handsomely. How, then, can this practice be perpetuated?
I strongly believe that within each and every one of us, there is the desire to contribute meaningfully to the world around us however we can. This desire is no less strong in people with all kinds of disabilities as it is in those without disabilities. It is for this and many other reasons that I personally find these legal wage disparities so morally and ethically troubling, and why I want to explore what I perceive to be the deeper attitudinal and moral implications of them.
Nearly 23 years after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in July 1990, people with disabilities still face a host of barriers to gainful and meaningful employment. While it is beyond the scope of this post to discuss all of the reasons for this, one of the most prevalent, I believe, is the fact that there are still numerous attitudinal barriers that people with disabilities must overcome; in other words, many people do not believe that a person with a disability is capable of performing the job for which they are applying on a par with a non-disabled applicant or they may erroneously believe that people with disabilities have high turnover and absentee rates, both of which have been proven to be false. Despite the studies showing that workers with disabilities are just as capable as those without, discrimination is a reality which too many people with disabilities, of all social and economic classes must contend with daily.
NBC noted that in addition to disabled employees at some Goodwill stores being paid sub-minimum wages, their wages were likely to change if they failed to pass an assessment of their abilities which was administered periodically. In one such incident, Harold, a college-educated blind man who works at a Goodwill store in Great Falls, Montana was timed to see how many pieces of clothing he could successfully hang in the span of a minute. He noted that two mistakes were permitted. Beyond this, the quality of the employee’s work was deemed poor and their wages adjusted accordingly.
As someone who is also blind, I find this test unconscionable, particularly owing to the implications it makes about people with disabilities and their inherent worth. People with disabilities often find that we must prove ourselves and our abilities in myriads of contexts, and the constant stress this entails can have severe and long lasting consequences. Though it might take someone with a disability longer to perform a task, or they may need to find an alternative way of performing the task, this says nothing about the quality of their work or their inalienable human worth. Indeed, it may speak volumes about their care to detail, for example, or their meticulousness in giving their employer the finest piece of work they can.
Judaism teaches that each and every human being is created B’tzelem Elohim—in the image of God—and henceforth that we are all partners with God in perfecting the world and making it a dwelling place for God’s presence. My tradition also teaches me the importance of kavod HaBriot—dignity for each and every human being. Grounded in these values, as I heard more about the wage disparities that too many Goodwill employees with disabilities face, I grew increasingly saddened at the implications of such disparities. Too frequently in our society, worth and ability are correlated and until we successfully challenge and upend this notion, I believe that people with disabilities will not be able to achieve full self-determination on a large scale. Further, I wish to argue that this has a direct corollary in financial self-sufficiency for people with disabilities. If we believe that the work a person with a disability is able to produce is substantially of a poorer quality to that of a non-disabled peer, it would make sense that the wages paid to the disabled worker would be commensurate with their perceived lack of ability. Unfortunately, this correlation also, I believe, has its counterparts in the educational and social spheres.
One of the arguments put forward by Goodwill in the NBC piece was that the sub-minimum wages were less important than the personal satisfaction that the disabled employees received from their jobs at Goodwill and that further, the wages they earned made up a small part of their supposed larger livelihood. This notion harkens back to the compassionate discrimination model—the belief that we are being compassionate and upstanding if we give a disabled person a job, regardless of the pay earned because without us, they’d have no job at all. This does not take into account that people with disabilities, like those without disabilities, need money to survive, and if their wages are barely sufficient to cover their transportation costs, let alone the costs of other basic necessities, we are not in fact helping someone exercise their right to self-determination. Instead, we are perpetuating a cycle of low expectations and dependency, which so many are desperately trying to get out of. All workers are entitled to the same wage protections, regardless of their disability status.
Remembering that each human being has inherent worth is critical if we are to do the sacred work of making this world a place where God’s face is not hidden. As so many celebrate the ADA this month, let us not forget that for too many people, the promise of a life rich with opportunity is a far cry from their current circumstances. Let’s work together to do whatever we can to right these wrongs and to ensure that all human beings of all abilities are treated with the dignity they are due.