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Goodwill head who makes $164,000 fired disabled workers after minimum wage hike

  • An Illinois chapter of Goodwill drew fire after moving to fire disabled workers and blaming it on a planned hike in the state's minimum wage.
  • The nonprofit's director also said that disabled workers weren't always as productive or efficient as other workers.
  • But public furor over the layoffs, including from the state's deputy governor, quickly forced the organization to reverse its decision.

An Illinois branch of Goodwill faced a barrage of criticism after announcing plans to fire disabled workers and blaming it on the state's rising minimum wage.

Sharon Durbin, president and CEO of Lincoln Goodwill, a Springfield-based organization that runs 15 thrift stores in the state, drew fire from state officials after she told workers employed under a vocational program for people with disabilities that they were losing their jobs. She cited the planned pay hike, which is slated to climb to $15 in 2025, as the reason for the layoffs. As a nonprofit, her organization doesn't pay taxes, collects state funding and has been awarded state contracts. Under federal rules, it also may pay disabled workers significantly less than the minimum wage.

But Durbin was forced to quickly backtrack after a public outcry, with Illinois Deputy Gov. Christian Mitchell tweeting that Goodwill "ought to be ashamed."

Citing "the outpouring of comments" regarding the recent layoffs of workers in its vocational rehabilitation program, she said in a post on her outfit's Facebook page that those affected by the layoffs will return to their part-time skills training program with pay.

"Some challenges can be overwhelming to the point where the numbers, rather than those we are working to elevate, become the focus. Their challenges and their needs are personally near and dear to my heart. As the President & CEO of this organization, I want to apologize to our constituents, our clients and our faithful donors," stated Durbin, who took home an annual salary of $164,849 and another $6,145 in benefits. Her son made $95,747 as a member of the nonprofit's executive leadership team, according to 2018 tax documents. 

Durbin had explained to a local CBS affiliate that disabled workers weren't always as productive or efficient as other workers, which undercut her group's bottom line. "It really was not a job," she told CBS affiliate WCIA. "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."

Durbin had previously urged Illinois Gov. Jay Pritzker to stop the wage hike from taking effect. She also cautioned that the state's higher pay floor would trigger a "domino effect" of joblessness across the state, saying companies such as Walmart would not want to "start paying everyone who walks in the door $15 an hour. They can't." 

Loni Braun, whose 28-year-old autistic son Nick worked for one of Durbin's Goodwill locations, questioned the logic.

"My son has worked for Goodwill for six years," she told WCIA. "He started at $8.25. He left at $8.25. So he has never had a raise. The minimum wage is going to go up I believe a quarter, but not until January. So they are not raising it to the $15 until the year 2025."

Goodwill Industries, the national umbrella group with a mission of helping those in need "reach their full potential" said it was "gratified" to hear of Durbin's decision to reverse course. It had earlier reacted to the uproar by saying the Land of Lincoln Goodwill Industries was re-examining its decision.

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