History was made on Wednesday when a federal jury in Davenport awarded $240 million to 32 mentally disabled workers at an Iowa turkey-processing plant to compensate for what government attorneys described as abuse by the company that employed and housed them. This was the largest verdict in the 48-year history of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which sued on their behalf.
The jury found that Hill Country Farms created an unlawful hostile environment for the men and discriminated against them on the basis of their disability. Jurors awarded them $7.5 million each after a weeklong trial, according to court documents.
For decades, 32 mentally disabled Iowa turkey processing plant workers’ lives were controlled by their Texas-based employer, which profited by hiring them out.
Whether they were sick or injured, these mentally challenged employees were driven daily from the dilapidated, bug-infested bunkhouse, where they were housed, to their 41-cents-per-hour jobs removing the slaughtered birds’ guts. These handicapped workers were subjected to daily verbal and physical abuse that left them with “broken hearts, broken spirits, shattered dreams, and ultimately broken lives,” as stated in the suit.
It is unlikely the men’s former employer, the now-defunct Henry’s Turkey Service of Goldthwaite, Texas, has enough remaining assets to cover the $7.5 million in damages each man was awarded. But federal officials vowed to recover every 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.”
After the trial, the company’s president, Kenneth Henry, told the Quad-City Times 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. Senator 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.
Following the verdict, Gant read off some of her findings from her review of the men’s treatment: Rain entered their bedrooms through failing windows, leaving 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 the community,” she said.
“The verdict sends an important message that the conduct that occurred here is intolerable in this nation, and hopefully will help to restore dignity and acknowledge the humanity of the workers who were mistreated there for so many years,” EEOC Chair Jacqueline A. Berrien said in a statement.
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. The building, which is several miles from the West Liberty Foods turkey processing plant, where they worked, was inspected and found to be falling apart, infested with rodents and full of fire hazards.
Many of the men were found to be in desperate need of 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. Injuries and complaints of pain or requests for doctor’s visits were ignored, the complaint said.
Social workers reported that 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 man to a bed.
In the 1960s, Henry’s began employing men 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 said 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. Last September, a federal judge found that Henry’s Turkey Service had violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by paying the workers “severely substandard wages” – a $65 a month rather than the average of $11 to $12 per hour given to non-disabled workers who performed the same work, according to the EECO. 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 that the company received praise early on for giving them opportunities.
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.
It was stated that the EEOC would examine “all sources of moneys and tangible assets” that could be seized for payment toward the judgment, including more than 1,000 acres of land in Texas, allegedly worth up to $4 million.
Following a 2009 inspection, the state shut down the bunkhouse 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.
“The men are enjoying their new lives and take full advantage of all this community has to offer,” she said.
State and federal prosecutors declined to bring criminal charges against those responsible for the abuse. It was said that the prosecutors were so troubled by this case then, and continue to be troubled to this day, regarding the inexcusable, deplorable living and working conditions the disabled men encountered.
It is difficult to imagine how anyone could abuse a handicapped person in order to benefit monetarily. Hopefully this will verdict will send a message that every American is entitled to work in healthy conditions and be treated fairly, whether disabled or not.
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