Goodwill? Try Ill Will

Mizerine St. Fort once worked for Goodwill. Now she's suing the venerable nonprofit.

For 40 years Goodwill Industries of South Florida has been earning the community's goodwill by putting disabled people to work, even those with severe physical, mental, or emotional handicaps. Under a federal vocational rehabilitation program, the agency provided counseling, training, and employment to 2100 impaired Miami-Dade County residents this past year.

So Goodwill administrators in Miami were surprised on January 14 when one of their former seamstresses, 61-year-old Mizerine St. Fort, filed a federal lawsuit alleging the organization illegally paid her subminimum wage for eight and a half months.

Goodwill acknowledges that St. Fort earned around $4 per hour, far less than the federal minimum wage of $5.15 per hour, but asserts that rate was legitimate. Agency officials say St. Fort, along with most of Goodwill's disabled workers, participated in a program that is exempt from federal minimum wage and overtime regulations.

According to Coral Gables attorney Susan Norton, who has handled the organization's employment matters for more than fifteen years, complaints like St. Fort's are unusual at Goodwill. "To my knowledge this is the only wage-and-hour lawsuit that has ever been brought against Goodwill [South Florida]," she says. (The local organization is an independent affiliate of Goodwill International, which started in Boston a century ago.)

St. Fort, who immigrated to Miami from Port de Paix, Haiti, twelve years ago, was allowed to participate in the Goodwill program because she suffers from a spinal condition that causes pain and limits her movement. She is a tall, slow-moving woman who wears gold-frame glasses and brightly patterned skirts and blouses. She sometimes wears a neck brace.

Money is carefully managed in St. Fort's household; her husband, Marcel Damas, is retired, and she sends what she can to Haiti to help support her three children there. A 21-year-old daughter lives with her in Miami. She says Goodwill paid her late (a violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act), a claim that Norton denies. "I was without any income, and I needed money, and they didn't send me my check," St. Fort says in halting English.

St. Fort is seeking back pay for sewing she did from April to December 1998. She also wants compensation for the two and a half weeks she waited for Goodwill to send her final paycheck. Before entering Goodwill's rehab program in April 1997, St. Fort was unemployed for six years following an accident at her previous job in a restaurant. At Goodwill she learned a system of sewing pieces of garments, such as pockets and sleeves, that has been used for decades. The nonprofit organization furnishes uniforms and other items to government agencies. Recently Goodwill South Florida began producing its own brand of blue jeans, called G.I. Pride, which will be on sale at thrift stores in the spring.

St. Fort says she generally worked weekdays from 8:30 a.m. until 4:00 p.m. Every morning she'd pick up big packages that contained around sixty pieces of material to be sewn. Although she was paid by the piece, she doesn't know the rate. She estimates that she completed 20 or 25 packages per day.

Workers in Goodwill's rehab program are trained in different repetitive tasks such as assembling newspaper-advertising inserts and janitorial work. "These are people who, because of their medical problems, can't obtain competitive employment or perhaps because of their emotional issues, are so disruptive they cannot remain in a job. Some people have such a high rate of absenteeism they may be here on Tuesday and Wednesday, but no other day," attorney Susan Norton explains, cautioning that she's not allowed to say anything about St. Fort. "Whatever their disability, this gives them a chance to earn a paycheck that they'd never have otherwise."

That paycheck, though, is different from those that go to regular Goodwill employees. The U.S. Department of Labor exempts Goodwill from the obligation to pay minimum wage to disabled participants in its vocational training program. The reason: The government wants to enable as many people as possible to gain the skills needed for full-time work.

Goodwill fired St. Fort in mid-December 1998. She called Miami labor attorney Jonathan Kroner after Christmas for help in getting her last paycheck.

Kroner wrote Goodwill on December 30, and St. Fort subsequently received the check: $252.84 for 63.7 hours of work. Even though St. Fort thought she had been wrongly fired, Kroner concluded Goodwill had the right to terminate her. But after inspecting other papers that St. Fort showed him, Kroner became convinced that, since April 1998, she had worked as a regular employee, not a participant in the rehabilitation program. Thus she was entitled to minimum wage for her past eight and a half months.

Kroner says he requested proof from representatives of Goodwill that St. Fort had, as they assert, been working under a minimum-wage exemption. He says that proof never came. "There is a law that allows employers who meet certain requirements to pay less than the legal minimum," Kroner concedes. "But both employer and employee must meet them ... I think the employer [Goodwill] meets the requirements, but [St. Fort] does not. That's why I'm pursuing the case. I've put a lot of work and time into trying to get this resolved, but they haven't budged. They're using a hypertechnical exception to the minimum-wage law that I think is legally and morally wrong. They're operating a sweatshop."

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