CEO cited state’s rising minimum wage, despite paying disabled workers far less
By CARL GREEN
Springfield, IL – In the end, the only person who wound up out of a job was the Goodwill CEO who fired a group of about 12 disabled workers and blamed it on the state increasing its minimum wage before rescinding the firings after a storm of angry reactions.
Sharon Durbin, CEO of Land of Lincoln Goodwill, was making $165,000 a year but brought no good will to her organization, which doesn’t have to pay minimum wage anyway. She had just had a $30,000 pay raise and hired her son, Brian, for $95,000 as vice president of retail. On Thursday, she resigned.
WCIA-Channel 3 in Champaign-Urbana broke the story of the firings on Tuesday, July 16, noting that Land of Lincoln pays no taxes, collects state funding, was awarded state contracts and has federal permission to pay disabled workers well below the state minimum wage, which is now set to increase by $1 on Jan. 1.
The company took in $689,000 from the state in the year ending June 30 for “pre-vocation skill building” and stands to gain more from the recently passed state budget. Proving once again the value of a free press, WCIA interviewed one of the workers, who was bewildered at the loss of his job.
MANAR STEPS IN
Reaction was swift and fierce, including State Sen. Andy Manar (D-Bunker Hill), a union supporter whose district takes in part of Land of Lincoln’s territory. He demanded a full review of state contracts and funding awarded to Land of Lincoln Goodwill, which has 15 stores across central Illinois and about 400 employees.
“An organization that eliminates opportunity for the most vulnerable people in the state while simultaneously driving up executive compensation should be ashamed of itself,” he said. “Blaming a minimum wage increase that hasn’t even gone into effect and that does not apply to these workers after receiving an increase in taxpayer funding is unacceptable.”
His demand remains. “When I work to craft and vote to support a state budget to increase funding for human services programs to benefit the well-being of the most vulnerable, it is not my intention to line the six-figure pockets of executives at non-for-profit entities like Ms. Durbin,” Manar said.
‘REALLY NOT A JOB’
The layoffs came through a reorganization of the agency’s Vocational Rehabilitation Program that eliminated payments to all but 11 of its disabled workers, and Durbin had said they could be cut, too, in the future.
She claimed in a letter to workers that the cuts were the result of the minimum wage law and that her agency is “progressing away” from paying disabled workers because they are not as efficient or productive as other employees, and it takes time to train them and correct their errors.
“It really was not a job,” she wrote. “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.”
Following a backlash that included both U.S. senators from Illinois, presidential candidate Bernie Sanders and numerous state legislators, Durbin reversed her decision, calling it an error in judgment.
“Our recent decision regarding the Vocational Rehabilitation 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,” Durbin wrote. “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 issue was discussed at length on the Capitol Fax state news website, where commenters said Durbin’s apology had missed just one thing – her resignation.
That came July 18, with a statement from the Goodwill board naming Run Culves, vice president of finance, as interim CEO and saying it would seek a “strong, compassionate leader.” Durbin had been with the agency for 13 years.