Do Goodwill CEO’s Make Millions While Paying Disabled Employees Pennies An Hour?

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If you follow my website you know that I’m a huge supporter of non-profit organizations, consignment and thrift stores and even garage sales. I personally am a huge fan of our local Discover Goodwill stores and feature makeover contests every month with shopping trips to our local stores. I shop there for clothes, household goods, books, and toys. It’s with enthusiasm I tell people who compliment my outfits that “I got it at Goodwill for only $3!” But let me be clear, I do it because I believe in what they do, how they operate their business, and the many ways they help our community, not to mention the great prices! Not because they pay me or give me things for free.

Last year I got an occasional email or two sharing “stories” about how Goodwill exploits their disabled employees by paying them less than minimum wage and in some cases only pennies an hour, as low as 22 cents an hour, while Goodwill CEO’s were making half a million to a million dollars a year. I pretty much ignored the stories because I didn’t believe them and I knew that my donations and shopping helped my community, and to be quite honest, myself. I felt good about donating and good about saving money. I’ve said repeatedly, “it’s a win-win situation when I shop and donate at Goodwill.”

But over the past couple of weeks I’ve received about a dozen emails questioning my integrity in promoting a company that mistreats the disabled. These emails are a result of a NBC Rock Center with Brian Williams evening broadcast (that aired on June 21, 2013) that criticized Goodwill Industries International’s use of Special Minimum Wage Certificates as a means for training and securing employment for individuals with significant and multiple disabilities.

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One of the primary contributors to this report was the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) who have expressed strong opposition to these certificates. So, because questions have been sent to me personally, I’m going to address some of the points the Rock Center feature made, some of the “facts” floating around on the internet and why I 100% support our Discover Goodwill stores.

A lot of what I’m writing will be my own personal opinions, along with factual information (that I’ll present in a hopefully non-boring way) from information I’ve researched. If I make any mistakes, it’s my fault and not based on anything Discover Goodwill put out there. I have tried to get as much information as possible, and have probably spent at least 20 hours on this.

** I began this article a couple of weeks ago and then put it on the back burner. I was wondering if this was even a timely piece anymore but just this past weekend I went to a party and I had someone ask me what I thought about Goodwill CEO’s making a lot of money and not paying their employees minimum wage. A timely coincidence that happened at this same party was someone walking over while we were discussing Goodwill who shared a personal story about her son’s experience working at Goodwill (which I’ll share later in the article.) And honest to God, the morning of the party we attended, I received an email from, asking me to sign a petition against Goodwill because they mistreated their disabled employees in how they paid them. So I came home knowing this was still relevant and that there were still some who wondered why I was such a huge fan of Goodwill.

GoodwillFirst of all, did you know that all Goodwill organizations are chartered members of Goodwill Industries International but each one operates independently, with its own CEO and Board of Directors? So for example, in our area, Discover Goodwill of Southern and Western Colorado is comprised of Canon City, Colorado Springs, Falcon, Fountain, Grand Junction, Monument, Pueblo, and Woodland Park. These locations operate differently than say Goodwill’s in Michigan or say Texas. Not all Goodwill’s are the same but the legal practices are.

As I began my research on how much money Goodwill pays their CEO’s and upper management, one of the first articles that popped up on my internet search and was shared on many sites was an article claiming Goodwill owner and CEO, Mark Curran, made 2.3 million dollars a year while he paid his employees pennies an hour. Wow!! Except for the fact that Mark Curran has never owned or even worked for Goodwill. Double wow!! The interesting thing about my search was that the first half a dozen articles I read, including articles from Huffington Post and Snopes actually stated this article about Mark Curran was totally false…but they copied the original story as their lead and you had to read the entire article before you found out he didn’t even exist. A lot of people will read the first couple of paragraphs without finishing a story so if you just read the beginning, you’ll think the story is true. So, in case you don’t finish this article, Goodwill is NOT a business that takes in donated items and resells them for a profit. It IS a not-for-profit organization that provides job training, employment placement services and other community-based programs for people who have disabilities, lack education or job experience or face employment challenges. Goodwill raises money for their programs through a chain of thrift stores which also operate as non-profits. And I do encourage you to finish this article.

*In America, 80% of people with disabilities do not have jobs.

Now let me address the “facts” about how Goodwill takes advantage of their employees by paying them “pennies” an hour.

The special minimum wage certificate issued by the U.S. Department of Labor, is used by more than 3,400 employers nationwide to help individuals with significant and multiple disabilities to gain and maintain employment. This certificate is issued under Section 14 (c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), and allows employers to pay commensurate wages to employees whose disabilities significantly impair their productivity, which sometimes means they are paid less than minimum wage.

*Goodwill International employs 113,000 team members. Less than 10% of these employees fall in this category.

Activists say Goodwill exploits workers with these “penny wages”. What wasn’t reported in the Rock Center feature was that the employees who fall under the Special Training Wage Certificates category, who make less than minimum wage; receive a health and wellness benefit (which includes FREE comprehensive health and dental insurance, not only for the employee but for their entire family, with no co-payments or deductible,) a case manager who among other services can also help with medical conditions the employees have, and transportation to and from work.

*Our local Discover Goodwill employs over 1,050 individuals with approximately 305 of whom have some form of disability. Thirty-nine Discover Goodwill trainees utilize the Special Training Wage Certificates. When factoring in their combined wage and benefits packages, these 39 individuals receive compensation at or above minimum wage.

On a personal note, as someone who has a member of their family with a mental disability (who does not work at Goodwill,) a lot of times those who are mentally or physically challenged, end up staying home, with no social interaction. A lot of times these individuals live at home with caregivers who have to go to work, which means they are alone most of the day. Goodwill not only offers job training and employment but it offers support and a place to go. Self-confidence is built when new skills are learned. Friendships are developed, a sense of “worth” is attained, and caregivers can worry a little less because their family member is not only working, but being looked after too. And in case you didn’t know, when those with disabilities receive financial aid like Medicaid, housing, social security disability, food, etc., they are not allowed to make over a certain dollar amount or they will lose their financial assistance. (States vary on dollar amounts.)

As I researched this story I came across lots of cases where companies abused their disabled employees physically and mentally but I didn’t see these stories on the news. One recent example: A federal jury ruled in May 2013 that Henry’s Turkey Service of Goldwaithe, Texas must pay 32 mentally disabled workers $240 million for years of abuse and neglect. The now-shuttered company’s violations of the American Disabilities Act range from physically abusing the men to packing them in unsanitary bunkhouses at night. Over 40 years, hundreds of men were shipped from Texas to work in Henry’s Iowa plant for 41 cents an hour. They were housed in a century-old cockroach-infested school building with a broken boiler, denied access to disability services, and battered with constant physical and verbal abuse by their so-called caretakers. The complaint details how injuries and requests for medical aid were ignored, restroom breaks were prohibited, while caretakers mocked the men as “retarded” “dumbass” and “stupid.”

–The jury’s landmark award of $240 million was later slashed to $1.6 million, because damages can be capped under federal law based on the number of employees affected in the claim. Each worker can recover $50,000, plus interest, according to federal law, instead of $7.5 million. The workers can also receive back payments, which average $50,000, according to court documents.

The ACTUAL Goodwill CEO, Jim Gibbons... oh, and he's also legally blind, too.

The ACTUAL Goodwill CEO, Jim Gibbons… oh, and he’s also legally blind, too.

Why am I even mentioning the case against Henry’s Turkey Service? Because to me, that was a really appalling story, based on real abuse, but it didn’t get much publicity. And I ask myself, why is it Goodwill who is receiving all the “bad” publicity? Is it because the CEO’s do make large salaries than their employees? According to the AFL-CIO, Chief Executives at some of the largest companies earned an average of $12.9 million in total pay in 2012, 380 times more than a typical American worker. Goodwill International CEO, Jim Gibbons, made $729,000 in salary and deferred compensation. Ok, you can argue, so he made less than other CEO’s but he’s (Goodwill) still taking advantage of disabled employees.

In the Better Business Bureau’s 2011 review of Goodwill’s financial statements, showing their uses of funds:

  • Program Expenses = $50,942,586
  • Fund Raising Expenses = $479,458
  • Administrative Expenses = $3,644,262

To me, it seems like they are giving back and helping their communities more than they are becoming rich off the backs of disabled employees.

The email I mentioned earlier that came from contains a message from Sheila Leighland, who is the woman who was interviewed on Rock Center. Sheila and her husband are both blind with college degrees. They were employed at Goodwill, making $3.50 an hour, hanging clothes. She said that after knee surgery, she returned to work to find her wage had been lowered to $2.75 an hour. Part of her complaint is “Goodwill determines how much money they pay disabled workers using ‘time studies’ where an employee uses a stopwatch to time how long it takes to complete a certain task and compares it to a non-disabled worker”

Well, the fact is that it’s not just Goodwill that does time studies. Certificate holders ARE REQUIRED by law to determine the wages by a time study; otherwise they would fail to remain authorized certificate holders. Hourly wages for trainees are determined through periodic assessments using standards set by the Department of Labor. At our local Discover Goodwill, wage increases are given as the individuals grow in their job responsibilities and work performance.

I honestly don’t want to sound callous but here’s my personal thought on this…I think that those who are disabled want to feel like they aren’t discriminated against, which I totally agree with, and want to be treated like those who aren’t disabled. In most jobs with non-disabled employees, there are yearly (or more) reviews where the employee’s work is reviewed and pay is based on that (among other things of course.) If Goodwill is required by law to give these time studies, then they have to comply with the law. And, at least locally, those tests usually mean a raise for the employee, not a decrease in pay. It also helps them gauge how well they are training the employees and if they are in the right “position.”

Sheila also wrote, “My husband and I feel trapped by Goodwill. They know they can pay disabled workers like us less and less because we have fewer places to go. Goodwill recently came under scrutiny for this practice of paying disabled people pennies for their labor, and defended it. I know they are vulnerable right now and could be pressured to change this practice if enough people join me in speaking out.”

Ok, again, my personal thoughts…She stated they have fewer places to go for work, which is because a lot of businesses simply don’t hire disabled employees. Remember, the Special Wage Certificates are for those who are severely handicapped, and less than 10% of all Goodwill employees fall under this category. As an employer, would I pay two employees the same amount of money if one can, say, type 100 words a minute versus someone who can type 5 words a minute? As an employee, do you want someone who makes 10 sales calls a day versus your 100 calls to make the same amount as you do? Sheila also doesn’t mention in her letter if they received insurance and transportation opportunities. I know a lot of people who work 40 or more hours a week and still can’t afford insurance for themselves or their families. You do have to factor that in, I think.

When my husband and I were at the party, which I mentioned at the beginning, here’s what the person (that voluntarily offered her and her son’s experience with Goodwill) said…

“My son, now 23, participated in a post-high-school program for 18-21 year-olds from District 49 called Elevates. This program provided job training experiences and other life skills training for individuals with special needs. My son was in special education throughout his school years.

The Elevates program was dependent on community partnerships with organizations like Goodwill to succeed. Through the partnership he was able to apply for a paid work experience with Goodwill. Goodwill had an established contract with the Air Force Academy to provide custodial services. He also received health benefits as a part-time Goodwill employee. Additionally, Goodwill provided transportation for its workers.

However, it was much more than a job. Goodwill provided personal support for the employee, as well as the employer. If there were training or other work related issues like conflicts between co-workers, or with the employee’s work performance, Goodwill assisted the employee and employer to work through the issues. This was a huge benefit for my son because some of the conditions of his disability relate to difficulties with social interaction and communication skills. He received 30-day reviews and based on these reviews was eligible for wage adjustments. There were several opportunities for merit increases and continual feed-back on his work performance.

I was most impressed with Goodwill’s focus to treat my son with respect. He worked as a custodian for Goodwill for a little more than a year. He learned a lot about the employee-employer relationship during this time and gained knowledge from the support he received from Goodwill for conflict resolution in the workplace. The benefits of this opportunity has proven to be priceless. He has received several part-time jobs since working for Goodwill. He speaks often of his experience working for Goodwill and refers back to skills taught him during his employment.”

(Thanks so much for sharing your son’s experience!!)

I think, as in any workplace, you’ll have those who like where they are and what they do, and others who don’t.

In 2012, our Discover Goodwill:

  • Served 50,761 individuals
  • Assisted 20,158 individuals with career services
  • Placed 5,796 people in jobs with community employers; their projected annual earnings are over $45 million
  • Helped 309 people at home with daily living needs
  • Supported 156 individuals with disabilities who worked 179,800 hours earning $1,891,000 through commercial and government contracts
  • Welcomed 1,495 volunteers who gave 36,601 hours of their time
  • Employed 1,055 people
  • Served 38 counties in Colorado


  • DSC_0375Diverted 33,594,000 pounds of donations from landfills
  • Recycled 533 tons of computers
  • Provided $171,000 in emergency clothing vouchers to 10,959 individuals in need

And in Colorado Springs, we have the first and only of its kind, Possibilities, which I have personally toured and love…

I’m sorry that Sheila and her husband feel they have been taken advantage of by Goodwill. I’m sorry that we live in a world where there are millions of workers who don’t get paid what they deserve and have challenges taking care of themselves and their families. I’m sorry that there are so many injustices done to those who don’t deserve it.

But I’m not sorry I support Goodwill, nor am I sorry I shop there and donate to it. I believe this 111-year-old social enterprise that places someone in a good job every 33 seconds of every business day tries and does help those in need. Is it perfect? No. Is every business or even person perfect? Of course not. But I believe they are helping thousands of people who might otherwise not get help.

As I end my story, I want to add that it’s not only Goodwill I support. I have volunteered at The Salvation Army, donated to ARC, donated food to Care and Share, and given money to the Red Cross. I consider myself fortunate, having all my basic needs met and try to give back the best I can. I guess I started this story because one, my reputation was questioned and two, I felt Goodwill had been given some untrue and undeserved bad press.

Lastly, regardless of whether you agree or disagree with what I’ve written; regardless if you support Goodwill or not, there are a lot of people in need and lots of opportunities to help others. So whether it’s Goodwill, or any other non-profit group, please give where you can.

For more, detailed information…

PS…I’ll be starting a new back-to-school Discover Goodwill contest tomorrow!


  1. Kathy Hanna says:

    I worked at Goodwill Easter Seals for seven years and my experience was one of mistreatment by store employees. The disabled workers were not eligible for bonus’ and raises like the regular employees but worked just as hard. I became very disillusioned by the company and it’s practices toward the disabled. They didn’t treat them very well in my opinion.

    • Kathy…I am sorry to hear of your experience there. I’m not familiar with where Goodwill Easter Seals is located. The only stores I have been to in the past 10 years are the ones located here in Colorado and the employees I talked to seemed to really enjoy the work and friendships they made. Thanks for your input!

  2. Hello. I’m not writing to argue, but to possibly help you understand some of the help people of disabilities receive. I like yourself know quite a bit of what I’m going to share, but also some of it may not be 100% of the true numbers. DRS (Dept of Rehabilitation Services) they provide job training, job coaching, transportation to and from work, and various other services. If the person with disabilities receives Social Security benefits and or Medicaid, their insurance is already covered. You may say that the government doesn’t have to pick up the tab, but they’re already picking up Goodwill’s taxes and undoubtedly other non profit funding. Yes, I agree for some of the workers they enjoy the friendships and I’m sure some individual stores are very kind to their employees, unfortunately that’s not the case everywhere. I understand some of the people with SEVERE cognitive and physical disabilities are grateful for a company to hire them, but once again Goodwill is a NOT FOR PROFIT organization. Explain why a person whom is blind should be paid differently? I know blind lawyers, athletes, business owners, etc. Blind individuals are blind, they only need some accommodations put in place for safety reasons a system laid out and they can do 99% of anything that a sighted person is able to do, besides maybe drive their donation trucks:) Disabilities doesn’t equal not being able to perform the job, but Goodwill and many other organizations take advantage of the situation. By the way a Legally Blind CEO isn’t impressive, it just shows he’s able to make a substantial amount of money off people with disabilities. Legally Blind to sighted individuals may seem to be a great disability, it isn’t, it’s society that treats them this way. I say all of this because I am involved with many non profit organizations that employ persons with disabilities and my own child is DeafBlind, it will be a cold day in a certain place that my child will work for those wages. She is intelligent, social, kind, and can learn anything when presented in the correct manner. Dept. of Rehab is who provides these extra services, I won’t argue that Goodwill may offer these services for some employees, but I’m sure the federal government is picking up the tab as they do with every other organization. I don’t care who wants to support Goodwill, just as people support Walmart, I just choose not to help fund their mistreatment of their employees. I hope your giveaway goes well, but just make sure you take off your rose colored glasses while you give their merchandise out.

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