For more than 20 years, 32 men with intellectual disabilities who worked in an Iowa plant eviscerating turkeys were subjected to both verbal and physical harassment, housed in substandard facilities and denied medical care. From 2007 – 2009, they also endured “severe abuse and discrimination,” including being paid a total of $65 a month when they should have received an average of $11 – $12 an hour.
In a “historic verdict” last week, a Davenport, Iowa jury awarded the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) damages totaling $240 million (the largest verdict in the agency’s history) for disability discrimination and severe abuse. Each of the men was awarded $2 million in punitive damages and $5.5 million in compensatory damages.
The decision follows a September 2012 order in which a district court judge ruled that Henry’s Turkey must pay the men $1.3 million for “unlawful disability-based wage discrimination.”
Henry’s Turkey is based in Goldthwaite, Texas; the 32 men (who were in their 40s, 50s and 60s) worked at plants in West Liberty and Atalissa, Iowa. The conditions the men endured, and for so long, are unbelievable. They were frequently referred to as “retarded,” “dumb ass” and “stupid.” Their freedom of movement was restricted and they were not able to access medical care or to have cellphones. Supervisors were “often dismissive” when the men said they were in pain or had been injured. They were hit, kicked, sometimes handcuffed to their beds and made to carry heavy weights as punishments. They were housed in a 1oo-year-old schoolhouse infested with insects and rodents with inadequate heating and leaky roof; a fire marshal has since shut it down.
In the 1980s, one worker reportedly wandered away from the schoolhouse during a winter storm and froze to death.
Such treatment was in clear violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), under which “discrimination on the basis of disability, including intellectual disabilities, in terms and conditions of employment and wages” is prohibited and disability-based harassment is not allowed.
Just reading about the abuse the men were subjected to sends chills down my spine. With my own severely autistic son Charlie turning 16 next week, we think often and always of what he will do after school ends for him at the age of 21. We hope that he can have a job. But then, over and above the long efforts to teach him the skills and to find him an appropriate position (keeping in mind that the unemployment rate is consistently higher for individuals with disabilities), we have to make sure that Charlie is protected and has work in a safe environment and that other workers and supervisors do not take advantage of him.
As Robert A. Canino, regional attorney of the EEOC’s Dallas District Office which tried the case, says,
These men suffered isolation and exploitation for many years, while their employer cruelly consumed the fruits of their labor. 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.
Canino also emphasized that the men “feel humiliation and suffer distress from their experiences even to this day.” I am hopeful that this historic case will have the effect of making the workplace and the world a safer, better place for individuals with intellectual disabilities.
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