Remember Henry’s Turkey – the company that exploited vulnerable intellectually challenged and disabled workers by, among many other things, paying them $65 a month to eviscerate turkeys?
The case that was settled by the EEOC for $5,000,000?
I dubbed Henry’s “the poster bird for the abuse of intellectually disabled employees.”
I wrote a number of posts about this infamous case — one entitled “The Southern Fried Henry’s Turkey Case.”
If a new case from South Carolina filed by the EEOC sounds a little like fried Henry’s, it is no coincidence – the exploited workers at both sites, according to Dan Barry at the NYT, “all initially worked for the same company, Henry’s Turkey Service, which recruited clients from state institutions in Texas, trained them, and sent them in batches to work in processing plants in several states. Many wound up in Atalissa [Iowa], while others landed in Newberry [South Carolina].”
Dan Barry wrote a series about Henry’s for the NYT, which is now a book, “The Boys in the Bunkhouse: Servitude and Salvation in the Heartland.” He has now investigated the South Carolina counterpart.
Barry is “the closest we have to a modern Steinbeck,” said Colum McCann, an award-winning author, who compared the new book to John Steinbeck’s classic “The Grapes of Wrath.”
This new case is just as sordid as Henry’s – but first you have to know a little about Henry’s.
In Henry’s case, the EEOC claimed that Henry’s Turkey Service in Iowa paid disabled workers wages “that were lower than the minimum wage for Iowa where they lived and worked, and that the disabled workers, some of whom had performed the work for over 25 years, were due the same wage rate as non-disabled workers. …
[They lived in] the “bunkhouse”—[which was] was closed down by the state fire marshal as unsafe, its heating was inadequate, the bug-infested building had rodent problems, and the roof was in such disrepair that buckets were put out to catch water pouring in. …
[T]he company [also] subjected the disabled workers to abusive verbal and physical harassment, unnecessarily restricted their freedom, and imposed harsh punishments and other adverse terms and conditions of employment such as requiring them to live collectively in substandard living conditions and failing to provide proper health care.”
The EEOC And Vulnerable Workers
I wrote about “vulnerable workers” back on October 18, 2015, and said that protecting “vulnerable” workers is an EEOC priority. An EEOC press release stated that “Combating discrimination against agricultural workers falls within one of the priorities under the EEOC’s Strategic Enforcement Plan (SEP): protecting immigrant, migrant and other vulnerable workers.”
As recently as last week, I described workers as “vulnerable” when they are subject to discrimination and harassment, “mostly evidenced by their powerlessness and the low status of their jobs. For example they may fear running afoul of immigration laws; they may be unable to speak English; they may be physically isolated in the job, be it in a field or a warehouse; or perhaps they are mentally challenged.”
Henry’s Turkey was in a class of its own.
The New South Carolina Case
As Barry has just reported, “Two years ago, several older men with intellectual disability were found living in virtual segregation in a seedy bunkhouse in South Carolina, across the street from the massive meat-processing plant where they once worked. …
After The New York Times exposed the situation, in the small city of Newberry, S.C., various government agencies worked to rescue the men from their shabby living conditions. …
Now the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has filed a disability discrimination lawsuit [“ADA”] against Work Services Inc., an employment agency that operated the bunkhouse and provided workers to the processing plant.”
The EEOC alleges that the company paid the men little or no compensation, “forced them to live in substandard conditions, restricted their freedom of movement, and deprived them of basic opportunities to engage with the world beyond the bunkhouse grounds.” The company also allegedly subjected the men to “offensive name-calling rooted in the men’s disability.” (Wonder if they mimicked and mocked them, as a presidential candidate is wont to do).
An EEOC lawyer said that after Henry’s Turkey was exposed, “many asked whether similar cases existed around the country. ‘The answer, sadly, turned out to be yes,” he said. ‘And what we found here serves to remind us all to remain vigilant against such abuse of our neighbors and co-workers.’”
Takeaway: As I said before, all employers, no matter the size, are given a black eye by acts of gross and cruel exploitation such as this. Employers and trade groups nationwide should take the lead in eliminating such exploitation, not only for the obvious sake of the workers, but also to protect their good name.
If they don’t, the EEOC will do it for them.