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Disabled Workers at Turkey Plant Subjected to Abuse for 21 Years

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.

Disability Rights Texas provides more details about the abuse the men were subjected to (see this file).

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.

 

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Photo by cyanocorax.

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91 comments

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10:27AM PDT on May 1, 2011

WELL...Dan, YOU seem to know...so start a group,and get sponsorship, in order to Monitor and STOP these abuses

2:19AM PDT on May 1, 2011

Curtis Walker and Sherilyn Richardson are comamagers of a group home in NYC called Bernard Fineson Residence. Every week, Ms. Richardson, who is responsible for the consumer's bank deposits, regularly siphons off some funds for herself and Mr. Walker, who by the way, happens to have a very serious substance abuse problem. Apple Bank is also to blame for tacidly permiting this or at least not looking into it. Together, they've taken over $30, 000 in SSI funds of consumers. This game is played regularly within these group homes and residences. Too bad the politicians are too busy with their own misdeeds to do anything about it.

11:43AM PDT on Apr 29, 2011

Slavery still exists. And it exists in the United States of America, land of the free. Just a month or so ago I read a story about police raiding a farm in Florida and liberated several workers that where held there to do unpaid farmwork. I loathe people that allow these atrocities to go on and they do it in the name of profit and greed. Send all responsible to prison for life and get the abused workers all the profits made during these 21 years. And I also want the owners and shareholders of these factories to personally apologize to the abused workers, face to face.

6:21PM PDT on Apr 27, 2011

if these men suffered for over 20 years, why did not a family member speak up earlier? So not only is the Turkey company
negligent - so are the families of these people. You can't tell me that not one relative came to visit over 20 years....

1:30PM PDT on Apr 26, 2011

People who kill animals are morally corrupt, this is a fact. This is no surprise to me at all. Sickening.. but not surprising.

1:03PM PDT on Apr 24, 2011

Hope these workers get some redress or compensation for their suffering over the years--we need reporting by the media on such workplaces to prevent more such situations in future.

7:00AM PDT on Apr 24, 2011

I thought that slavery was a thing of the past centuries.

6:00AM PDT on Apr 23, 2011

Another reason why it should never be unlawful to film or document what goes on behind the closed barn doors!
Don't allow gov't to pass that law!

4:42PM PDT on Apr 20, 2011

but it's not surprising. if the people who run that place can murder turkeys and it not bother them a bit, then why should subjecting humans to abuse bother them?

4:41PM PDT on Apr 20, 2011

ridiculous.

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Kristina Chew Kristina Chew teaches ancient Greek, Latin and Classics at Saint Peter's University in New Jersey.... more
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