Disabled Goodwill worker’s mom says nonprofit discriminated against her son

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SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (WCIA) — Amid a firestorm of public backlash, the local Land of Lincoln Goodwill chain reversed a wildly unpopular decision to fire 12 workers with intellectual disabilities on Tuesday. However, the fallout may have only just begun as thousands of angry protesters are calling for President and CEO Sharon Durbin to resign or lose her job.

Durbin, who oversees 15 retail locations and 450 employees across Central Illinois, said on Monday that the work the employees with disabilities completed “really wasn’t a job,” and that “we gave them through grace out of our budget so they had a paycheck to go home with.”

“To hear someone say something like that was so degrading,” Loni Braun told WCIA on Tuesday night. Her 28-year-old son Nick Braun has autism, Tourette’s syndrome, and cerebral palsy, and went to work for six years where he earned $8.25 an hour. He said he was devastated when he learned he was losing his dream job. That’s when his mother printed out his pink slip, scribbled a note on the back of it, and hand delivered it to WCIA’s Capitol bureau in Springfield.

“We were just appalled,” Braun’s mother said, reacting to Durbin’s comments. “How can you be CEO over a company that stands for people with disabilities and then turn around and say something so horrendous and degrading? It was so degrading.”

Braun said she felt Durbin was no longer qualified to lead Goodwill on its charitable mission to help people with disabilities, and said her comments about her son and his coworkers “practically…screams discrimination.”

WCIA has sent numerous requests to the 12 board members who oversee the Land of Lincoln Goodwill nonprofit to ask about Durbin’s status with the organization. Board Chair Shannon Jones called an emergency meeting for this Wednesday to address the public outcry. The panel may also grant back pay to the employees whose paychecks were discontinued on July 1st.

Durbin initially blamed the decision on Illinois’ push to gradually raise the minimum wage, an escalating pay scale that starts to begin next January.

Out of 50 disabled workers, 11 earned $9.50 an hour, 12 earned $8.25 an hour, and 27 were paid below the minimum wage. The thrift store chain went through a rigorous approval process to get special permission from the U.S. Department of Labor to pay subminimum wages to workers with disabilities.

Less than 24 hours after WCIA’s story detailed how the thrift store chain pays her $164,849 per year and her son $95,747 per year, Durbin committed in an apology letter to work “to assure a living wage is attainable for all those willing to work.”

The nonprofit pays no taxes, brought in $26.7 million in revenue last year, and benefits from state funding and state contracts written specifically for “workers with severe disabilities.” Despite the group’s apology and reversal, those contracts could still soon face intense scrutiny after state Senator Andy Manar (D-Bunker Hill) expressed outrage at the thrift store’s behavior.

State Senator Julie Morrison (D-Deerfield) also announced plans to hold hearings investigating the nonprofit in the Senate Human Services Committee.

Illinois lawmakers were not the only politicians to react to WCIA’s story. Two Democratic presidential hopefuls also chimed in on Twitter.

This is a developing story. Check back in with WCIA3 for updates.

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