Regina Hesch (Gina, to those who know her) has been a fixture at Santa Fe’s Goodwill retail store for more than 30 years. Her close-cropped hair has gone almost entirely gray since she started working here back in the 1970s, but the colorful ribbons she wears in it and her bright, genial smile make her look much younger.
Gina seems the embodiment of Goodwill Industries of New Mexico's mission: "to provide skill development, work opportunities and career-building services to people with barriers to employment." In Gina's case, the barrier is a developmental disability that slows her mental processes. But in March, the other half of the mission fell apart: Goodwill unceremoniously cut Gina's hours from 40 to 18, according to her sister and legal guardian, Susanna Hesch.
"She lost all her benefits and salary with no warning," Hesch tells SFR. "It looks to me like they're setting [her] up for failure."
Gina wasn't the only one. Matthew Dean, another disabled Goodwill employee, has worked at the Santa Fe resale store for 23 years. He has the use of only one arm; according to his brother, Dean was told he was being fired as a full-time employee because "according to them, he was not performing up to the standards."
(SFR reached Dean's brother at home but was unable to speak with Dean himself.)
After Gina's hours were cut, Hesch says, Gina was enrolled in Goodwill's Transitional Opportunity Program (TOP), an on-the-job training program geared toward "preparing individuals for eventual community employment," according to Goodwill New Mexico's website.
But Gina is doing the same work she did as a fulltime Goodwill employee—sorting clothes, receiving donations, manning the cash register. The only difference is that TOP receives state funding. To Hesch, that seems suspicious. Did Goodwill just want somebody else to pay Gina's salary?
Mary Best, president and CEO of Goodwill Industries of New Mexico, tells SFR in a written statement that Goodwill is "performance based" and that "individuals are expected to meet expectations based on their abilities, and not their disabilities." While Best declines to discuss specific employee issues, she does indicate that TOP was created specifically for people like Gina and Matthew.
"For the first time ever these individuals will be asked what they want to do in regards to their career path," Best adds. "Goodwill will be there every step of the way to train them and help them achieve their goals." Last year in Santa Fe alone, she notes, Goodwill placed 63 people in jobs in the community.
But Hesch, who preferred that Gina not speak directly with a reporter, says her sister was perfectly happy in her Goodwill job. Besides, Hesch wonders, "Who's going to hire her?" Carolyne Tomlin, the former manager of the Santa Fe Goodwill store, has been asking herself the same question.
Tomlin says she was fired without warning last October.
"I was at [a] manager meeting, and they pulled me out and terminated me," Tomlin tells SFR. "I was just devastated."
Tomlin says both Gina and Matthew were "excellent" employees and that she's planning to file a lawsuit against Goodwill Industries of New Mexico for improperly terminating several other employees.
"I'm trying to bat for these guys because I think it's so unfair," Tomlin says. "This is what the Goodwill mission is all about, help[ing] people with barriers— and now they gave every single one of us a barrier to employment."
Best acknowledges that Goodwill "did experience turnover" in the last six months but denies that it's a part of any concerted effort:
"[M]any chose to leave on their own…and some were asked to leave because they were not meeting performance expectations."
To Michelle Davis, a schoolteacher who frequents Goodwill to buy children's books for her classroom, reduced hours aren't the only problem. Gina and Matthew are a vital part of Santa Fe's Goodwill store, not just as employees, Davis says, but also as people.
"With Matthew, when I'd go in, he'd always smile, and he remembered I was a schoolteacher and would say, 'Are you getting books for your class?'" Davis smiles. "Regina would be like, clear across the store, 'Hi, Michelle!' Both of them were good at customer service."
Hesch agrees. "We go out, and within an hour, people are like, 'Hey, Gina! How are they holding the store up without you?'" she says. "She's immensely popular; they all love her."
"I'm trying to bat for these guys because I think it's so unfair."