SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (WCIA) — A nonprofit director at the local Goodwill hub fired 12 workers with disabilities this month, and threatened to fire more, but after tens of thousands of viewers responded in fury, she was forced to apologize, reinstate the workers, and lost her own job in the end.
Facing mounting pressure from state lawmakers and Senators Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth, the Land of Lincoln Goodwill Board of Directors announced on Thursday that CEO Sharon Durbin submitted her resignation. It was effective immediately.
Durbin, who made an annual salary of $164,849, initially wrote a letter to inform minimum wage workers with disabilities they could still come in to work for job training, but they would no longer be paid, citing a 2020 increase in the state minimum wage.
In an interview with WCIA on Monday, Durbin said tasks completed by employees with disabilities “really was not a job,” and described how burdensome it was for other employees to have to fix their mistakes.
Tens of thousands of people reacted in protest to WCIA’s report outlining her salary, her son’s executive salary of $95,747, and the thrift store’s $384,953 in state grants and contracts specifically set aside for a “person with severe disabilities.”
One of the core aims of Goodwill’s charitable purpose is to help workers with disabilities get job training and gain employment. In the letter announcing Durbin’s departure, the Board stated a renewed commitment to that goal.
“The Board fully intends to seek out a strong, compassionate leader for our Goodwill organization who can energize our employees, expand our mission and who can provide the mission-driven leadership necessary to positively impact thousands of lives each year in central Illinois,” the statement read.
The organization may still have to hand over financial documents dating back to 2010 detailing how much it pays executives and how much it pays workers with severe disabilities who earn subminimum wages. Goodwill has a special certificate from the U.S. Department of Labor allowing the organization to pay workers with intellectual disabilities below the minimum wage.
In a blistering letter scolding the nonprofit for abandoning its charitable mission, Senators Durbin and Duckworth demanded Goodwill hand over any documents that could justify hiring the now-former Director’s son to a executive position, and any documents that describe the nonprofit’s efforts to starting “progressing away from” paying workers with disabilities below the minimum wage.
“We also remain deeply troubled that the Land of Lincoln Goodwill Industries’ statement announcing the reversal failed to address whether after rehiring all 50 employees with intellectual disabilities, you will make sure all 50 employees are paid at least the State minimum wage of $8.25 per hour,” the joint letter reads.
The letter from Senators Durbin and Duckworth specifically cites the WCIA news report, which was also shared by U.S. Senators Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), both of whom are currently running for the Democratic nomination for President.
State lawmakers also applied pressure to the nonprofit, notifying the Board on Thursday that if they did not take further action, Senator Julie Morrison could use her subpoena power as chair of the Senate Human Services Committee to compel the organization to testify. According to Senator Andy Manar (D-Bunker Hill), Morrison was prepared to gavel in her committee to hold a hearing and to take the rare measure of issuing a subpoena.
It was not immediately clear on Friday morning if the affected Goodwill workers would be receiving back pay for their lost wages. The subject of back pay was on the agenda at Wednesday morning’s emergency board meeting, but as of early Friday afternoon, calls and emails to the thrift store seeking answers about the workers’ back pay were not returned.
Loni Braun, the mother of 28-year-old Goodwill worker Nick Braun, brought the story to the attention of WCIA and other local media outlets in an attempt to get her son his job back.
In text messages on Friday, Braun expressed gratitude for the outpouring of support from the public, and said her son “still can’t stop talking to other [Goodwill workers] about what he did for them.”