$240 Million Awarded to Abused Iowa Workers

Employment lawyers at Pintas & Mullins Law Firm report of a recent verdict concerning the decades abuse and discrimination suffered by mentally disabled workers at a turkey plant in Atalissa, IA. Henry’s Turkey Service was ordered to pay each employee $7.5 million for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Last year, 32 former employees of Henry’s Turkey Service contacted the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) alleging unlawful harassment and discriminatory practices at the company’s labor camp in rural Iowa.

The stories of these men are horrific and devastating, spanning a period of 40 years. During that time, Henry’s transferred hundreds of mentally disabled men from Texas to Iowa to work in the meat-processing plant for only 41 cents per hour. The men lived in a century-old boarding house, which the state shut down in 2009 after inspections revealed decrepit, hazardous conditions.

These men were never provided with disability services, health or dental insurance, or access to Medicaid, which caused many of them to not visit a doctor or dentist for years on end. The bunkhouse did not have any central heat, had numerous fire hazard violations and was swarming in cockroaches that could be heard through the walls. One winter, a worker wandered away from the bunkhouse, became lost in a storm, froze to death, and was not found again until a farmer discovered his body the following spring.

The company’s president, 72-year-old Kenneth Henry of Proctor, Texas, testified at the trial, stating that his company sent 1,500 mentally disabled men to labor camps in seven states over a period of 45 years. He stated that he never produced a company policy manual, and that no one at his company ever even owned a computer to research the legality of employing and supporting the mentally disabled. He never attempted to obtain a license to care for disabled adults.

A social worker for the Iowa Department of Human Services also testified, producing evidence that some employees were routinely punished by being taken to a garage next to the bunkhouse where they were hit, kicked and screamed at by their superiors while being forced to walk around a pole.

One of these abused men is Keith Brown, who worked for 35 years at Henry’s Turkey and lived at the Atalissa bunkhouse. His sister, Sherri, visited the bunkhouse in April 2013. Driving up to the house, she stated, was difficult. It looks like House of Horrors, a place her where brother did not live at, but had to survive from.

Brown was diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder form the trauma he received here. He has night terrors where he thrashes, hits his head, and has repeatedly broken the skin on his forehead. He never mentions the men he worked and lived with for more than 30 years, or anything else about those lost decades.

Four years after the bunkhouse was closed, Brown now lives in his own apartment in Arkansas, where he receives support services and is fully employed. He has adjusted remarkably well – making friends, taking care of a cat, and putting on 60 pounds of much-needed weight on his once-emaciated body. He doesn’t miss a day of work, and loves going, because he is now treated with the respect he deserves.

In the years after its closing, Henry’s Turkey has been subject two at least four separate lawsuits, all resulting in judgments of more than a million dollars, although this most recent verdict is by far the most significant. The jury in this case awarded each of the 32 men $2 million in compensatory damages and $5.5 million in punitive damages.

In the lawsuits, the company was found guilty of violating federal and state labor laws, ADA wage standards, and the Americans with Disabilities Act, totaling nearly $245 million. Employment lawyers at Pintas & Mullins Law Firm commend the Iowa jury for making such a strong statement about this type of malicious treatment, and for not allowing these workers’ suffering to have happened in vain. If you or a loved one is suffering illegal treatment by an employer, you have important legal rights, and may be entitled to significant compensation though a wage, hour, and overtime lawsuit.