Disabled Workers at Turkey Plant Subjected to Abuse for 21 Years
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has filed a lawsuit against Texas-based Hill Country Farms, alleging that the company subjected a group of men with intellectual disabilities to severe abuse and discrimination for more than 21 years. Not only were the men, whose job was to eviscerate turkeys, subjected to physical abuse and inhumane working and living conditions, but they were also verbally abused and called derogatory words such as ‘dumbass.’ This shocking treatment is in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), as amended by the Americans with Disabilities Amendments Act (ADAAA).
The lawsuit follows an EEOC Commission meeting held March 15, 2011, which explored the issue of discrimination on the basis of mental disabilities — an issue of overarching importance to me, as my teenage son, Charlie, is on the moderate to severe end of the autism spectrum. Reading about the men in the Hill Country Farms lawsuit, I fear that he might suffer similar abuses in the workplace.
As reported in the US government’s disability blog:
The complaint alleges that that the owners and staffers of Henry’s Turkey denied the workers lawful wages, paying them only $65 a month for full-time work; subjected them to abusive verbal and physical harassment; restricted their freedom of movement; and imposed other harsh terms and conditions of employment such as requiring them to live in deplorable and sub-standard living conditions, and failing to provide adequate medical care when needed.
According to the lawsuit, No. 3:11-cv-0004 – CRW-TJS, filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa, the men were “particularly vulnerable and unaware of the extent to which their legal rights were being denied” due to their intellectual disabilities. The men lived in Muscatine County and worked for 20 years as part of a contract between Henry’s Turkey and West Liberty Foods, an Iowa turkey processing plant.
Verbal abuses included frequently referring to the workers as “retarded,” “dumb ass” and “stupid.” Class members reported acts of physical abuse including hitting, kicking, at least one case of handcuffing, and forcing the disabled workers to carry heavy weights as punishment. The Henry’s Turkey supervisors, also the workers’ purported caretakers, were often dismissive of complaints of injuries or pain.
The EEOC will seek to recover lost wages for two years prior to the time that the Henry’s Turkey operations were brought to a halt in 2009. The EEOC seeks amounts consistent with minimum wages and based on pay levels commensurate with the work performed by non-disabled workers occupying the same job positions. The agency will also seek the award of compensatory and punitive damages resulting from adverse employment actions and abusive treatment. During its investigation, the EEOC worked closely with Disability Rights Iowa, an organization that works to advance and protect the rights of people with disabilities and its Executive Director, Sylvia Piper.
Said Robert A. Canino, Regional Attorney of the EEOC’s Dallas District Office, which investigated the case and is bringing the lawsuit:
“The isolation and exploitation these men suffered for many years, while the fruits of their labor were cruelly consumed by their employer, cannot be explained away by good intentions, nor can the violations of the ADA be excused as antiquated social policy. Our society has come a long way in learning how persons with intellectual disabilities should be fully integrated into the mainstream workplace, without having to compromise their human dignity. The ADA provided us with a law enforcement tool to ensure fair treatment for persons with physical and mental disabilities. We are asking the court to apply this law to the fullest extent possible.” [my emphasis]
In addition to the EEOC’s ADA claim of disability-based wage discrimination, the U.S. Department of Labor is filing a separate minimum wage and overtime suit against Henry’s Turkey under the Fair Labor Standards Act, which is set for trial later this year.
Our society has come a long way in recognizing the rights of those with intellectual disabilities. But clearly, we have a long, long way to go. I hope that we can just get a bit farther in making sure that those who employ workers with intellectual disabilities treat them — treat Charlie when, one day, he has a job — not only appropriately and in accordance with the ADA, but with full understanding of their dignity and rights as human beings.
Photo by cyanocorax.