One Point of Light

October 21, 1990

The Salvation Army, appropriately enough, has been given a reprieve that will permit it to go about its good works through the Christmas season without fear of being put in the dock by the Department of Labor. All of which proves the bureaucratic mind can be made to see reason, provided sufficient political pressure is applied.

What has enflamed federal functionaries is a "three hots and a cot" program for drug and alcohol abusers who have long turned to the Salvation Army not for a job but for help. In return for doing simple rehabilitation-therapy jobs, they are given shelter, food and $20-a-week spending money.

Not enough, said the Department of Labor, in threatening an enforcement action under the Federal Fair Labor Standards Act. It wanted these unfortunates paid the $3.80-an-hour minimum wage, or something appropriate to their output.

Why the department undertook what Rep. Marge Roukema, R-N.J, has since described as the "Mindless Bureaucratic Action of the Year" is somewhat complex. Other charitable agencies have long been critical of the Salvation Army. Goodwill Industries, for example, pays its handicapped workers minimum wage. Its president is chairman of a DOL advisory committee which urged that wages and hours regulations be applied to Salvation Army social programs. The Salvation Army replied that it knows the difference between its 40,000 regular employees, who are paid normal wages, and the 50,000 persons seeking help each year at its 8,000 adult rehabilitation centers.

Nevertheless, the Department of Labor went ahead and, in doing so, triggered a political uproar that has its highly political secretary, Elizabeth Dole, in embarrassed retreat.

It would hardly do for George Bush's government to snuff out one of America's "thousand points of light" just before Santa Clauses take to the streets to ring the bells of Christian charity. So DOL has agreed to postpone action for 120 days -- until mid-January -- before it decides what to do. Apparently this point of light ignited a glimmer of common sense.

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