By JERRY NOWICKI
Capitol News Illinois
SPRINGFIELD — State lawmakers are calling for a review of state contracts and funding awarded to Land of Lincoln Goodwill, a not-for-profit thrift store chain, after a news report revealed the company’s decision to lay off several disabled workers — a decision that will be reversed, according to a statement released Wednesday by the company’s CEO.
In a story first reported by Mark Maxwell of WCIA-TV in Champaign, Land of Lincoln Goodwill President and CEO Sharon Durbin attributed the layoffs to a recently-passed statewide minimum wage hike, which incrementally increases the minimum wage to $15 hourly by 2025.
The first $1 hourly hike will not take effect until January, however, and Goodwill qualifies for a federal waiver allowing it to pay certain workers far less than the minimum wage.
By Wednesday afternoon, Durbin had released a statement reversing course on the layoffs, which she referred to as a “decision to refocus the Vocational Rehab program.”
“Our recent decision regarding the Voc Rehab program and the resulting harm it might have caused falls short of living up to our mission and we apologize for this error in judgment,” she said in a statement. “We are reversing the decision to realign our Voc Rehab program and those participants affected will return to their part time skills training program with pay.”
The decision came after the WCIA report reached a national audience and caused local legislators to question state subsidies to the company.
State Sen. Andy Manar, a Bunker Hill Democrat, on Wednesday called on Illinois Department of Human Services Secretary Grace Hou to review $400,000 in taxpayer-funded contracts between the state and Land of Lincoln Goodwill. He maintained his stance in a Twitter post even after the company announced its reversal.
“The behavior of Land of Lincoln Goodwill and its director in the last 72 hours are why I asked for a full review and that hasn’t changed,” he said in a phone call.
Meghan Powers, a spokesperson for IDHS, said the department’s “top priority” is to “ensure that the hardworking employees with disabilities at the Land of Lincoln Goodwill stores are employed and appropriately supported.”
“While we are pleased that it appears Land of Lincoln Goodwill has reversed their decision in this matter, IDHS remains committed to ensuring the organization is fully compliant with state law and the mission of our agency through our agreements,” she said. “We are in the process of carefully examining and reviewing our agreements with Goodwill, and we are prepared to exercise any and all rights to ensure workers are protected.”
Legislators also took umbrage with Durbin’s salary, which was $164,849 in the fiscal year ending in June 2018, according to federal 990 forms. WCIA also reported Durbin’s son, Brian Durbin, was hired onto the company’s executive leadership team at a salary of $95,747.
Manar’s office said tax records show the Land of Lincoln Goodwill raised executive compensation for two positions during the height of the state budget impasse by $86,155 over 3 years.
Mike Egbert, board president of the Illinois Network of Centers for Independent Living, said the Goodwill revelations give a “black eye” to social service agencies, as he criticized “nepotism” hires and CEO raises during a period in which most social service agencies were “just struggling to get by.”
“But more importantly, people with disabilities have a right to be treated fairly and equally, and they face discrimination every day in life. It's actions like (Durbin’s) to terminate people, but it's also the words and mannerisms that people use,” he said.
Egbert referred to a video posted on Maxwell’s Twitter account Tuesday in which Durbin said the work of disabled employees “really was not a job…It was a work component, and through it, we gave them through grace, out of our budget, to pay them so they had a paycheck to go home with.”
Egbert said Durbin showed she “doesn’t get the world of disabilities.”
“Programs like what Goodwill should be running is to help people overcome those disabilities, those limitations,” he said. “So even her words, her language, is offensive to a lot of people with disabilities, and I believe that there should be more than just reversing her actions. There’s a bigger picture or underlying climate, to me, at that organization currently.”
A call to Land of Lincoln Goodwill went unreturned Wednesday.
State Rep. Theresa Mah, a Chicago Democrat, has been working with organizations like Egbert’s to reassess subminimum wage programs in general. She called Durbin’s initial reasoning for the layoffs “ludicrous,” considering Goodwill’s federal authorization to pay a subminimum wage to disabled workers.
Mah said her Illinois Dignity in Pay Act, which stalled in the General Assembly this year, will be brought up again when legislators return to Springfield. That bill would call for the DHS to develop and implement a plan over the next five years to phase out subminimum wage procedures.
In a March press conference, Mah said her bill would create a worker protection fund, establish customized work plans for each subminimum wage worker, freeze the issuance of subminimum wage certificates, and require reporting and evaluation on the progress of reforms.
Mah said part of the protection fund would go to state subsidies to facilities paying increased wages in certain cases, although the exact percentage of the wage match was not yet defined in the legislation.
“We're not saying that once this bill passes, there's a cliff and they're going to have to start paying minimum wage. There's a phase-out plan that's being proposed that looks out for their (employer) interests, as well as the interest of people with disabilities. I think the bottom line is that these are people we're talking about and paying anyone 74 cents per hour is inhumane,” Mah said in a phone interview Wednesday.
In March, advocates said funding would ideally come from already-allocated but unused funding to the IDHS Department of Developmental Disabilities. Since 2010, an average of $120 million in funding for the Division has gone unspent each year.
Mah’s proposal seems to have a backer in Democratic U.S. Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, a U.S. Senator from Vermont. He tweeted about the Illinois Goodwill flap in response to WCIA’s sharing of the story Tuesday.
“No worker should be told they're lucky to get less than minimum wage,” Sanders said. “People with disabilities deserve jobs that pay a living wage. It's time to end the subminimum wage and guarantee truly integrated employment opportunities for people with disabilities.”