Updated: August 25, 2012 at 12:00 am
About 50 people picketed in front of the Discover Goodwill store in south Colorado Springs on Saturday, demanding higher wages for workers.
“Goodwill needs to live up to its name,” said Scott LaBarre, president of National Federation of the Blind of Colorado, the group that organized the event.
The focus of the protest are Special Training Wage certificates issued by the federal Department of Labor under the Fair Labor Standards Act.
“What the law allows is abuse,” LaBarre said. “We have to reform the law.”
Of the 1,060 or so Discover Goodwill employees in the region, and about 30 percent have some disability, said Bradd Hafer, spokesman for Discover Goodwill of Southern and Western Colorado. Only 45 are working under the special certificates, he said. The certificates allow the employers to set wages below the minimum.
“The idea is not to hold them at the base wage,” he said, adding that they are trying to prepare employees for success at Goodwill or elsewhere.
Workers with the certificates also receive transportation to and from work, case management, training and a health and wellness benefit, which means compensation is more than minimum wage, he said.
LaBarre said the 1930s piece of legislation allows companies, including private business and nonprofits like Goodwill, to pay workers with disabilities at rates far below minimum wage. LaBarre and others at the protest said Goodwill uses the law to pay workers as little as 22 cents an hour for as long as the workers put up with it.
“It’s devastating,” said Julie Deden, who is also blind. “People think it they can’t progress. If they are working, they should be paid for it.”
Deden is the director for the Colorado Center for the Blind. She said almost everyone at the protest was blind or had another disability.
LaBarre said some of those protesting had family members who used to work for Goodwill, but no one at the Saturday event currently worked for the nonprofit.
The protest was one of more than 90 such gatherings around the country, organizers said. Nationwide, more than 50 organizations support efforts to repeal the law.
Employers like Goodwill, though, defend the law as a way to get people with disabilities into the work force.
Goodwill said the workers in the program are regularly reviewed, and their wages increase accordingly, Hafer said, citing the case of one employee who started working at Goodwill under the certificate program and in about a month was off the program and making above minimum wage.
“Discover Goodwill operates as an opportunity center, not a profit center,” he said. The unemployment rate for those with disabilities is 80 percent, and Goodwill wants to change that, Hafer said.
Shoppers who visited the store, near South Circle and Janitell drives, were given a flyer from Goodwill explaining the certificates and outlining what it does for workers in that classification.
LaBarre said most people don’t know what Goodwill and others are doing to disabled employees.
“Goodwill needs to be a leader,” he said. “Different people have different abilities. You can find work for anybody.”
Contact Kristina Iodice: 636-0162 Twitter @GazetteKristina