Goodwill Exposed Paying Sweatshop Wages to Disabled

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    Crisis management required after media highlights contrast between stated mission and reality

    The revelation that some disabled Goodwill workers make as little as 22 cents an hour while execs regularly rake in as much as $1.1 million annually has created a crisis of reputation for the nonprofit organization.

    According to NBC News, Labor Department documents feature long lists of employees making well under $2 an hour thanks to a Depression-era law called the Special Wage Certificate Program, meant to encourage employers to hire disabled workers. Goodwill execs willingly appeared in the NBC report, but were utterly unapologetic, describing the jobs they offer as being, “about their (worker’s) fulfillment, it’s about being a part of something.”

    This situation actually reminds me of a discussion we had during last week’s, “Ask the Crisis Manager Anything” Google Hangout, in which Pat Philbin shared what he believes to be one of the leading causes of easily-preventable crises, namely a contrast between an organization’s stated ideals and its real-life actions. Let’s see how that applies to our case here…Goodwill takes donated product and sells it for a profit, as well as collecting a hefty sum from taxpayers ($87 million last year alone), all under this mission statement:

    “Goodwill works to enhance the dignity and quality of life of individuals and families by strengthening communities, eliminating barriers to opportunity, and helping people in need reach their full potential through learning and the power of work.”

    People donating clothing, goods, and straight-up cash to Goodwill assume they are helping provide affordable goods for low-income people and contributing to paychecks for those who may not otherwise have a job. When Goodwill says its goal is “enhancing dignity and quality of life,” and then pays disabled workers sweatshop wages, all while management takes in high six-figure salaries, the resulting conflict creates the crisis we’re seeing now.

    This issue has already sparked protests both online and off, as well as discussion among lawmakers as to the validity of the 70+ year-old law being used (and exploited, as recent cases have shown), today. Obviously the donations aren’t going to stop coming in to Goodwill entirely based on this revelation alone, but a quick read through comments on various articles about the issue show a hefty sum of readers sharing their determination to not only never give to the organization again, but also spread the world to anyone who will listen.

    Our crisis management recommendation to Goodwill? Move to modernize your program before the government makes you do it. Yes, it is true that in a matter of weeks this report will be history, but as long as the clash between stated ideals and real-life actions continues to exist, an organization’s reputation will never, ever be secure.

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    [Jonathan Bernstein is president of Bernstein Crisis Management, Inc., an international crisis management consultancy, author of Manager’s Guide to Crisis Management and Keeping the Wolves at Bay – Media Training. Erik Bernstein is Social Media Manager for the firm, and also editor of its newsletter, Crisis Manager]