CHICAGO — Illinois lawmakers expressed outrage after a downstate branch of Goodwill Industries announced plans to stop paying many of the nonprofit’s employees with disabilities, citing expected rising payroll costs due to the pending state minimum wage increase.

Yet after much backlash on social media, Land of Lincoln Goodwill Industries in Springfield this week reversed its decision, with the chief executive officer issuing an apology to “our constituents, our clients and our faithful donors.”

“Our recent decision regarding the (Vocational) 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,” said Land of Lincoln Goodwill President and CEO Sharon Durbin in a written statement, citing an outpouring of comments regarding plans to no longer pay the workers. “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.”

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A Land of Lincoln Goodwill spokesman confirmed a letter was sent in mid-June to a dozen workers with disabilities in a job skills program, letting them know they would no longer receive a paycheck for their work because of budgeting constraints attributed to a recently approved Illinois minimum wage increase.

The charity now says all of those workers will receive their paychecks.

“All affected individuals will keep their previous jobs and their previous wage rate (minimum wage or higher),” said Patrick Anderson of Land of Lincoln Goodwill in an email. “Back pay is being discussed now and most likely will happen for the affected individuals.”

The nonprofit receives state funding for contract work and some reimbursement for services provided to people with disabilities. The charity does not pay taxes.

Land of Lincoln Goodwill, like other Goodwill agencies, is a separate entity operating independently under its own board of directors, Anderson said. Officials with Goodwill Industries International did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The local charity, which is based in Springfield, has 15 central Illinois retail stores and donation centers, and employs over 400 people.

Many Chicago lawmakers expressed anger early this week that the nonprofit would threaten the pay of workers with disabilities, strongly advising the charity to reconsider.

“Seems to me that this is the opposite of what ‘goodwill’ means,” state Rep. Kelly Cassidy, a Chicago Democrat, said on Twitter.

State Sen. Julie Morrison, D-Deerfield, said in a written statement that the Goodwill agency in 2018 received nearly $400,000 in state grants and contracts intended only to be used for workers with disabilities. She also accused the nonprofit of using “false excuses,” adding that Goodwill is permitted by the U.S. Department of Labor to pay these workers below minimum wage.

“What are these contracts going toward if not for the employment of individuals with disabilities?” Morrison said. “That is something we will be looking into. We need Goodwill to return to its mission of working to lift up those experiencing barriers to employment, especially those with disabilities.”

The story, first reported by local news station WCIA, also drew the ire of U.S. presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.

“No worker should be told they’re lucky to get less than minimum wage,” Sanders tweeted on Tuesday. “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.”

Land of Lincoln Goodwill CEO and president Durbin’s salary in 2018 was $164,849 with $6,145 in benefits, according to Internal Revenue Service documents.

The local nonprofit’s stated mission is to “provide rehabilitative and job-training services to persons with disabilities and other barriers to employment in and around Springfield, Illinois,” according to IRS forms.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed legislation in February to increase the state’s minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2025; the last time Illinois raised its minimum wage was in 2010, to $8.25 an hour.

© 2019 Chicago Tribune
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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