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

IOWA CITY, Iowa - For decades, the lives of 32 mentally disabled Iowa turkey processing plant workers were controlled by their Texas-based employer, which profited handsomely by hiring them out.

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


Regardless of sickness or injury, they were driven from the dilapidated, bug-infested bunkhouse where they were housed to their 41-cents-an-hour jobs removing the slaughtered birds' innards. Day and night, at work and at home, their overseers subjected them to verbal and physical abuse that left them with "broken hearts, broken spirits, shattered dreams, and ultimately broken lives," a government attorney said.

On Wednesday, they made history when a federal jury in Davenport awarded them $240 million -- the largest verdict in the 48-year history of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which sued on their behalf.

It's unlikely the men's former employer, the now-defunct Henry's Turkey Service, of Goldthwaite, Texas, has anywhere near enough remaining assets to cover the $7.5 million in damages each man was awarded. But federal officials vowed to recover every last cent they could for the men, who had been "virtually enslaved" for many years, according to developmental psychologist Sue Gant, who interviewed them at length for the EEOC.

"That discrimination caused them such irreparable harm, and the jury got that. They understood," said Gant, an expert on the care of people with intellectual disabilities. "The amount of the award just appears to be overwhelming. I think it goes to the degree of injustice here."

An attorney for Henry's didn't respond to a message seeking comment. But the company's president, Kenneth Henry, told the Quad-City Times after the trial that he planned to appeal, calling some of the evidence "terribly exaggerated."

"Do you think I can write a check for that?" Henry, 72, told the newspaper.

The jury determined that Henry's violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by creating a hostile environment and imposing discriminatory conditions of employment, and acted with "malice or reckless indifference" to their civil rights.

U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, who was an architect of that law, said the ruling sends a powerful message to employers throughout the U.S. that all workers deserve to be treated with respect.

During an interview following the verdict, Gant ticked off some of her findings from her review of the men's treatment. Rain entered their bedrooms through failing windows and made their beds wet. Supervisors forced them to walk in circles carrying heavy weights as punishment and 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.

State officials told the court that the abuse was uncovered in 2009, when they received a tip about neglectful conditions at the bunkhouse from a sister of one of the men. They inspected the building, which is several miles from the West Liberty Foods turkey processing plant where they worked, and found it was falling apart, infested with rodents and full of fire hazards.

They found many of the men in need of immediate medical care, including one man who couldn't chew a waffle because of severe dental problems and another whose hands were infected from constant contact with turkey blood.

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