Why Goodwill goes bad

September 25, 2017

Alex Moyle uncovers a story of arrogance and greed with deadly consequences at a "nonprofit" that claims to be a haven for some of the most vulnerable workers.

IT WAS exactly the kind of tragedy that David Goudie had warned the bosses about.

At the end of September last year, 26-year-old Abraham Garza was killed when his head was crushed as he checked the alignment between a heavy steel bin and a trash compactor at the Goodwill store on Franklin Boulevard in South Sacramento, California.

But Goodwill management didn't take responsibility for the tragedy. Instead, they fired Goudie, banning him from the premises when he reported to work 10 days after the incident.

Goudie, who had been working as a waste management driver for Goodwill, warned bosses weeks before Garza's death about unsafe conditions specifically related to trash compactor hazards. After complaining verbally, he drafted a memo titled "Employee Workplace Safety Hazard Notification." It reads in part:

Based on my personal observations, most employees now operating compactors at each plant have not received the required training. This exposes Goodwill Industries to fines in the tens of thousands of dollars from Cal-OSHA, and should an employee become injured or killed as a result of this lack of training, civil damages could climb into the millions. All of that massive liability exposure is completely UNNECESSARY if the required training is made mandatory by company leadership and reporting supervisors are held accountable for failures to do so.

The Goodwill store in Sacramento where Abraham Garza was killed on the job
The Goodwill store in Sacramento where Abraham Garza was killed on the job

GOUDIE HAD been struck by the lack of safe working conditions since he came on the job. The first red flags went up when he refused to haul a trailer on public roads without functional brakes. "The trailer brakes wouldn't engage when activated from the cab, so as a professional driver, I was obligated to shut it down," he said in an interview.

But instead of sending a technician, Goodwill sent another driver to take over. "Someone who'd been on the job longer than me," said Goudie. "Somebody who knew that if they said drive it, you drove it, or else. It became clear that they didn't care about even public safety, much less worker safety."

Goudie continued to document and raise such complaints throughout his six months of employment at Goodwill. The warnings were flatly ignored. In a cruel twist of fate, Goudie was there when Garza, the father of a 7-year-old son, met his gruesome death on the loading dock.

"I had to watch this poor kid's head get crushed," said Goudie. "It was very traumatic. As a father myself, I was outraged. On top of that, I had to witness the very thing I'd been dogging them about."

Yet it was Goudie who was mysteriously blamed for the fatal incident. When he returned to work after time off to deal with the trauma of witnessing Garza's death, Goudie was notified that he had been fired.

After a six-month investigation, Cal-OSHA disagreed, assigning the blame to Goodwill and imposing $106,675 in penalties for failure to train workers and failing to respond to Goudie's written warnings about the dangerous working conditions.

Goudie has since filed a whistleblower complaint, asserting that he was fired in retaliation for cooperating with the Cal-OSHA investigation. But Goodwill has not only appealed the Cal-OSHA decision, but sought to discredit Goudie by publicizing a dismissed criminal charge from his past.

Even now, months after Goudie went public, Goodwill is standing by its story. "Goodwill definitely grieves over the tragedy of this accident," said spokeswoman Karen McClaflin. "But this was caused by the negligence of one employee...we operate very safely and efficiently here."

What does Goudie think of Goodwill management today? Goudie paused for a moment to compose himself before replying to my question:

A little boy will be growing up without his father--for no good reason. I can think of no rational explanation for Goodwill's lack of concern other than executive incompetence or greed or both. That's what pisses me off the most about all this. Everyone seems to be able to see that--the labor commissioner can see it, Cal-OSHA can see it. And yet Goodwill has the audacity to not only deny responsibility, but to try to blame the very person who worked hard to prevent the very tragedy they now accuse me of causing. It's outrageous. So outrageous it makes you wonder where they get the gall--unless they've gotten away with it before.

INDEED, GOODWILL'S claim that this is an isolated incident and the fault of a single employee strains credulity when you know that Garza's death wasn't the first or last incident in which a Goodwill worker was killed by heavy machinery on the job.

In April 2008, at a Goodwill operations center in Tacoma, Washington, Nick Miller, a 27-year-old developmentally disabled worker, was killed in a similar accident when he was crushed to death by a trash compactor lift. Goodwill was initially ordered to pay $50,000 in fines because of Miller's death, but its lawyers bargained it down to $13,000.

In 2014, 69-year-old Chuck Lee was crushed to death by a forklift at the Lynwood, Washington Goodwill. A co-worker later told the media that training to obtain an operator's license at Goodwill lasted less than a half an hour, followed by an impossible-to-fail test. Lee's death resulted in a $9,000 fine for insufficient training.

And this past June, 54-year-old Theodore Tyson was killed in another forklift incident at a Goodwill facility in Linthicum, Maryland. The incident is currently being investigated by Maryland Occupational Safety and Health.

While Goodwill is classified as a nonprofit and is known for providing jobs to disabled and formerly incarcerated workers, it has a cruel side the public seldom gets to see.

Goodwill has rigorously opposing municipal efforts to raise minimum wages throughout the country, claiming that this would force them to lay off employees and thereby harm the most vulnerable sections of low-wage workers.

It's a profoundly disingenuous and cynical argument from an international mega "nonprofit" whose executives routinely rake in six-figure incomes, and whose CEO has made close to a million dollars a year in recent years.

The Sacramento-based Goodwill operation that employed Goudie and Garza grew from $6.8 million in gross revenue in 2002 to $68 million in 2015. Worldwide, Goodwill has grown into a $5-billion-a-year behemoth.

GOODWILL'S REPUTATION as a charitable organization was sullied in 2013 when reports emerged that it was exploiting an arcane loophole in labor law to pay thousands of disabled workers pennies per hour. An Al Jazeera America article uncovered one worker's paystub indicating that she had been paid $3.27 for 24.88 hours of work.

Utilizing a Freedom of Information Act request, NBC News determined that at 14 locations, workers were being paid 23 cents per hour or less.

Goodwill, while flush with cash, again argued that repealing the loophole would only hurt the vulnerable workers it would be forced to layoff.

A Forbes investigation quoted disabled former Goodwill workers recounting how, under the wage certificate program, they were made to compete in a grotesque race against the clock--and had their wages cut for every garment below quota that they didn't sort, button and hang on a rack in the time allowed.

At the same time, Goodwill was paying its top executives $53.7 million in compensation. And Doug Barr, the CEO of Goodwill of Southern California, was himself taking home $1,188,733 in total compensation.

Goodwill has been aggressive on the public relations front and quick to attack inaccurate Internet circulars claiming that its CEO is "Mark Curran, who profits $2.3 million a year." This is indeed a false claim, and the proliferation of such inaccurate postings allows Goodwill to portray all of its critics as peddlers of the online "rumor mill."

Goodwill's website corrects this misconception by pointing out that Jim Gibbons, not Mark Curran, is the CEO of Goodwill Industries International, linking to a bio including his education and favorite color. It doesn't mention that his salary is a mere $729,000 annually.

In spite of the controversy surrounding the sub-minimum-wage loophole, as well as online petitions and failed House legislation to repeal it, Goodwill continues to pay thousands of disabled workers below minimum wage--under the despicable pretense that it is a voluntary and beneficial program geared towards skill development.

Goodwill claims to be a pillar of the community, a charitable organization and a nonprofit. But like so much of philanthropy under capitalism, it is, in fact, a big business, making huge sums for the few who control it, with a business model that combines low-wage labor, unsafe working conditions, tax-exempt status and labor-law loopholes that allow for the hyper-exploitation of the most vulnerable workers.

Obviously, it is a good thing for the disabled, the formerly incarcerated and other marginalized workers to be able to find work. They shouldn't have to risk their lives or accept poverty wages to do it.

The massive growth of Goodwill wouldn't be possible without the labor of the workers sorting the inventory, stocking the shelves, driving the trucks, operating the heavy machinery, clerking the counters, and cleaning the facilities. They deserve--at a minimum--safe working conditions, a living wage, job security and respect.

Going forward, Dave Goudie will be the key witness in multiple suits against Goodwill, including one filed by the Garza family. The outcomes of these lawsuits--and whether they will have an impact on the business practices of Goodwill--remains to be seen.

The death of Garza and the scapegoating of Goudie, along with Goodwill's exploitative practices nationally and internationally, are a further reminder that capitalist philanthropy doesn't protect the vulnerable. Building working class power and achieving the demands of full employment, a living wage, workplace safety and the protection of disabled workers will have to be a project of the working class itself.

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