May 2, 2013

Mentally disabled workers awarded $7.5 million each

The verdict is the largest in the history of the EEOC, which sued a turkey plant over egregious violations.

By RYAN J. FOLEY/The Associated Press

(Continued from page 1)

Mentally Disabled Workers
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At top, the former school and Quonset hut near Atalissa,, Iowa, that housed mentally disabled men while they worked at West Liberty Foods until the state closed down the facility in 2009. Above, the rec room in the Quonset hut.

2009 AP File Photos

Mentally Disabled Workers
click image to enlarge


Social workers said the men described how the Henry's supervisors who oversaw their care forced them to work long hours to keep the processing line moving, denied them bathroom breaks, locked them in their rooms, and in one case, handcuffed one of them to a bed.

Henry's began employing men in the 1960s who had been released from Texas mental institutions. Hundreds were eventually sent to labor camps in Iowa and elsewhere, where they were supplied on contract as workers to employers including West Liberty Foods, which signed its deal with Henry's in the 1970s and was not accused of wrongdoing in the case.

The EEOC says that by 2008, Henry's was being paid more than $500,000 per year by West Liberty Foods, but was still paying the men the same $65 per month that it always had. The company docked the men's wages and Social Security disability benefits, claiming it was to pay for the cost of their care and lodging, and it never applied for medical care or other services for which they were qualified. Last year, a judge ordered Henry's to pay the men a total of $1.3 million in back pay.

During the trial, Henry's officials argued that their arrangement had benefited the men and said the company had received praise early on for giving them opportunities. EEOC lawyers called that argument outrageous, saying the standards for caring for the disabled had changed dramatically since then.

After the hearing, the EEOC's head attorney on the case, Robert Canino, said the verdict sends a message that their lives matter.

"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 jury awarded each man $5.5 million in damages for pain and suffering and $2 million to punish the company for knowingly violating the law.

The EEOC will examine "all sources of moneys and tangible 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.

The state shut down the bunkhouse following the 2009 inspection, and new living arrangements were made for the men. Some live in nursing facilities in Texas, others moved in with family and some now live in homes under the care of Exceptional Persons Inc., in Waterloo, Iowa, where spokeswoman Kate Slade said they now have choices about how to live and work.

State and federal prosecutors declined to bring criminal charges against those responsible for the abuse. Geoff Greenwood, a spokesman for the Iowa Attorney General's Office, said the higher legal standard for proving criminal charges made the prospect of winning convictions unlikely, but that the decision shouldn't be seen as indifference.

"Our prosecutors were troubled then, and remain troubled to this day, by the inexcusable conditions and treatment surrounding the employment and housing of disabled men working for Henry's Turkey Service," he said.

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