Jury Awards Mentally Disabled Men Millions in Case against Iowa Turkey Processor

Friday, May 03, 2013
Kenneth Henry (photo: Jeff Cook, Quad-City Times)

A turkey processor in Iowa spent decades exploiting and abusing mentally disabled workers, and will now have to pay $240 million in damages for its actions.

 

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) sued Henry’s Turkey Service four years ago after discovering what was going on inside the company’s bunkhouse in Atalissa. There, it was found that mentally disabled men were paid 41 cents an hour, while living inside a 100-year-old former schoolhouse infested with rodents.

 

The EEOC also accused the company’s owner, Kenneth Henry, of allowing at least one supervisor to physically abuse the workers.

 

The jury awarded each of the 32 plaintiffs $7.5 million for emotional and punitive damages. The penalty is the largest in EEOC history.

 

Henry said he will not pay the award and plans to appeal the decision. He testified that he was unaware of the conditions at the Atalissa bunkhouse or of the physical abuse against the men, who were recruited from Texas and sent to Iowa to work beginning in the 1970s. Approximately, 1,500 mentally disabled men worked for the company over a period of five decades.

 

Michael McAleer, president of the Handicapped Development Center in Davenport, accused Henry of treating the mentally disabled men as slaves.

 

The Atalissa workers case is seen as a landmark in shedding light on the treatment of the mentally disabled, and a significant step towards changing federal wage laws.

 

According to Sue A. Gant, an expert in the care and treatment of people with mental disabilities, changes are already happening at the federal level in light of the case.

 

Previously, companies could hire mentally disabled workers for less than minimum wage if they classified the worker as being in some sort of “training program.” The U.S. Department of Labor is now revisiting the waiver due to the Atalissa case, she said.

 

The U.S. Department of Labor investigated Henry’s Turkey Service in both 1997 and 2003 and concluded that the workers were being paid substandard wages. However, the federal government took no action. After a 2009 tip about the conditions at Henry’s, both the state and the federal government imposed million-dollar fines, but Henry’s simply didn’t pay them.

-Noel Brinkerhoff, Aaron Wallechinsky

 

To Learn More:

$240 Million Awarded in 'Landmark' Atalissa Workers Case (by Brian Wellner, Quad-City Times)

A Fruitless $240 Million Verdict (editorial, Quad-City Times)

Henry's Turkey Service President Denies Abuse, But Tells of Worker Freezing To Death (by Clark Kauffman, Des Moines Register)

Turkey Service Owner Denies Striking Disabled Worker (by Brian Wellner, Lee News Network)

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