Josh Shaffer

Shaffer: Former employee finds little good will at Goodwill

The Goodwill Community Foundation donation center and store in Knightdale, Thursday, February 7, 2013.
The Goodwill Community Foundation donation center and store in Knightdale, Thursday, February 7, 2013. tlong@newsobserver.com

Two years ago, I wrote a story about the husband-wife executive team at Goodwill earning nearly $800,000 a year in salary and other benefits, including membership at Raleigh’s exclusive Capital Club.

I didn’t have any ax to grind with the Durham-based nonprofit, and I still don’t. I believe now as I believed then: People have the right to know how charities are spending their money.

Dennis and Linda McLain still bring home an impressive pay package: $776,370 combined, according to Goodwill’s latest IRS disclosure.

But that’s not why James Cook gave me a call. At age 41, he recently left his job at Goodwill after three and a half years, describing a “moral dilemma.”

To his thinking, Goodwill acted far more like a for-profit business — and a fairly ruthless one — than a corporation interested in helping out the local poor.

Over coffee, he told me his Cary store threw out between four and five tons of trash every week, much of it donations deemed unlikely to sell quickly enough. Nothing ever goes on reduced-price sale, he explained, because Goodwill doesn’t want to train customers to wait for markdowns. Merchandise is moved, moved, moved onto and off of the floor.

He described a work environment where employees are under constant video surveillance and subject to “video audits.” Once, Cook himself had to explain why he’d left the building for 24 minutes. (He’d gone to the bank on Goodwill business.)

He told me about an employee who worked for him and ripped her pants on the job, and after several phone calls up the management ladder, learned she could not buy a pair of replacement pants at the store. Instead, she would have to clock out, get new pants somewhere else and be penalized on her time card for taking a long break.

All of this sounds like sour grapes from an ex-employee. But Cook insists it isn’t, and I believe him. In an hour, he never raised his voice or used ugly language. He referred constantly to notes he’d kept over the years. He told me how nervous he is about sharing his experiences on the record.

Goodwill treated him well, he said. He just wants people to know that, to his mind, the nonprofit where he worked isn’t living up to the Goodwill name.

“If you don’t believe in who you work for,” he said, “you need to find somewhere else.”

After I spoke to Cook, I wrote to Jenny Martin, the press contact for Goodwill Community Foundation. She told me the company cannot comment on matters related to the operation of the company and its employees. Nor can it comment on Cook’s account.

But she stressed that Goodwill Industries of Eastern North Carolina employs 360 persons served with an average wage and benefit exceeding $20 an hour.

She told me 16 million pounds of material was recycled, at a cost of $21 million, in 2014, but was not able to distinguish between donations and garbage recycled.

“What was sellable versus trash was Mr. Cook’s decision,” Martin said in a later email. “If salable things were thrown into trash it was a result of his decision.”

Martin said Goodwill donated 80,000 pounds of fresh produce to the local Food Bank and provided free online learning in basic math, English and technology to more than 6 million students in the United States and 260,000 in North Carolina; and gave free accounting to tax-exempt agencies located throughout eastern North Carolina.

More than 2,000 school kits, refills for the school kits, holiday stockings, no-sew blankets and buckets for flood cleanup went to children and families in need throughout eastern North Carolina, Martin said.

On top of that, she said, Goodwill Community Foundation gave more than $870,000 in grants to youth programs throughout eastern North Carolina.

Cook acknowledges Goodwill does some good, and I agree. But it’s important to note that Goodwill once worked with the disabled in the fields where it grows food, and now uses volunteer labor. It once offered job training, and now it has a Web site instead of in-person learning. The nonprofit still spends millions of its dollars on projects overseas, where the McLains often travel.

Cook told me he only saw salvage clothing recycled at his Goodwill location, that it went to Value Clothing in Salisbury N.C., and that to his understanding, Goodwill got paid for those items.

“What they do locally is they open up a store and they hire a staff,” Cook said of the organization’s local involvement. “I just felt like they could do more.”

Cook said he left the job last week after an injury. He said he took time off thanks to the Family and Medical Leave Act, and that Goodwill let him go when that time expired.

Cook has spent a career in retail, including Office Depot and Toys ‘R’ Us. He wrote a 76-page book about his experiences, “What Happened to Customer Service,” which is available on Amazon.com. He didn’t mention any of his employers, including Goodwill, in its pages.

After it published last spring, Cook got a call from his Cary store explaining that human resources staff was coming to see him. Two staff members arrived, driving from Durham to Cary, and told him they needed a copy. He felt like telling them to buy one on Amazon, but he handed it over.

Nothing bad happened, but Cook said he felt intimidated. He’d get snide remarks sometimes, along the lines of, “We hear you’re an author.” But he doesn’t know what happened to his collection of retail anecdotes, who in Goodwill read it or what they thought.

“I’ve never gotten it back,” he said.

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