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Abused disabled Iowa plant workers awarded $240M

Published: Wednesday, May 1, 2013 1:30 p.m. CDT

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — A jury on Wednesday awarded a total of $240 million to 32 mentally disabled Iowa turkey processing plant workers for what an expert witness described as years of "virtual enslavement" by the Texas company that oversaw their care, work and lodging.

The federal jury in Davenport determined that Henry's Turkey Service, of Goldthwaite, Texas, violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by creating a hostile living and working environment and imposing discriminatory conditions of employment on the men, who were each awarded $7.5 million in damages. The jury also found that the now-defunct company acted with "malice or reckless indifference" to the men's civil rights.

That's in addition to $1.3 million in back wages that a judge awarded the men last year. The men had been working at the plant under Henry's oversight since the 1970s, but never received a raise from the $65 per month that Henry's paid them after deducting what it said were the costs of room and board.

During the week-long trial that ended Wednesday, officials testified about the squalid conditions they found during a 2009 inspection of the bunkhouse where the men were housed. The building, which was in a rural area several miles from the West Liberty Foods turkey processing plant where they worked, was falling apart, infested with rodents and full of fire hazards.

Social workers spoke of the physical and verbal abuse the men said they had been subjected to by the Henry's supervisors who oversaw their work and care. They said they had been forced to work through illness and injuries, denied bathroom breaks, locked in their rooms, kicked in the groin and, in one case, handcuffed to a bed.

EEOC attorney Robert Canino said he was elated at the verdict, which sends a message to the men that their lives matter.

"This case moved me to great emotion because of the issue of exploitation of vulnerable populations," he said. "If ever there was a case where the human story needed to be told, the full story, not just financial exploitation, but the devaluation of human life that can happen under the control of an employer, it was this case."

He said the evidence showed "an unprecedented story of a pervasive and hostile environment" that was unique because it continued around the clock.

Sue Gant, a developmental psychologist and expert on the care of people with intellectual disabilities, interviewed the men at length for the EEOC and concluded they were subjected to horrific abuse and had been "virtually enslaved."

"That discrimination caused them such irreparable harm, and the jury got that. They understood," she said. "The amount of the award just appears to be overwhelming. I think it goes to the degree of injustice here."

She ticked off some of her findings in an interview. Rain entered their bedrooms through failing windows and made their beds wet. Supervisors forced them to walk in circles carrying heavy weights as punishment. Supervisors picked on a man who had a brace on his leg, often pushing him down. Another man had been kicked in the groin and was found with "testicles that were quite swollen." Others were often locked in their bedrooms at night, she said.

"If these men had not been virtually enslaved, they could have enjoyed productive lives with the support of community," she said. "It was only because they were disabled."

The jury awarded $5.5 million apiece in compensatory damages for their pain and suffering and $2 million apiece to punish the company for knowingly violating the law.

The defunct company isn't expected to be able to pay anywhere near the full amount of damages. The EEOC will work with the U.S. Department of Justice to examine company assets that could be seized to pay toward the judgment, including more than 1,000 acres of land in Texas worth up to $4 million, Canino said.

"We will work tirelessly to secure the most that we can for these men," he said. "We will be exploring all sources of moneys and tangible assets."

The EEOC sued Henry's after state officials shuttered the bunkhouse following the 2009 inspection. State officials then found new caretakers for the men, many of whom were in their 50s and 60s and had medical problems that needed immediate attention.

By 2008, Henry's was being paid more than $500,000 per year by West Liberty Foods, but was paying the men the same $65 per month that it always had. The company docked the men's wages and Social Security disability benefits, telling them it was to pay for the cost of their care and lodging, and it never applied for medical care or other services for the disabled that the men would have qualified for in Iowa.

Henry's began employing mentally disabled men in the 1960s and 1970s who had been released from Texas mental institutions. Hundreds of them were sent to labor camps in Iowa and elsewhere in the coming decades, where they were supplied on contract as workers to local employers. Company officials argued the arrangement was a benefit to the men, and that they were once praised for giving them employment opportunities.

Officials from the EEOC, which sued Henry's after Iowa officials shuttered the bunkhouse following the 2009 inspection, dismissed that argument at trial. They said the standards for caring for the disabled had changed dramatically since then.

The Iowa Attorney General's Office has declined to prosecute anyone responsible for the abuse, saying it is unlikely that criminal charges could be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

West Liberty Foods is not accused of any wrongdoing. Company officials said they banned a Henry's supervisor from the plant in 2007 after learning he had abused the men, but were otherwise unaware of problems.

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Follow Ryan J. Foley on Twitter at http://twitter.com/rjfoley

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