Texas Company Sued for Abuse of Iowa Workers

By | April 8, 2011

A Texas company is accused of severely abusing and discriminating against 31 mentally disabled men who worked at an Iowa turkey processor, in a federal lawsuit filed April 6 by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

The EEOC field the lawsuit against Hill Country Farms, a Goldthwaite, Texas-based company that also did business as Henry’s Turkey Service. Henry’s provided the workers to West Liberty Foods as part of a contract with the Iowa company. The lawsuit claims the abuse and harassment spanned more than 20 years.

Representatives of the Texas company did not immediately return telephone messages.

The federal agency claims in the lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Davenport, Iowa, that the workers were paid just $65 a month and were subjected to abusive verbal and physical harassment and required to live in a dilapidated bunkhouse that the agency described as “deplorable and sub-standard living conditions.” The men also were denied adequate medical care when needed, the agency said.

The verbal abuse included calling the men derogatory names. The physical abuse including hitting and kicking the men and forcing them to carry heavy weights as punishment.

The EEOC said the actions were in violation of the American With Disabilities Act.

“Workers with intellectual disabilities should never be subjected to the demeaning and discriminatory treatment alleged in this case,” EEOC Chairwoman Jacqueline Berrien said in a statement.

The men, most of them in their 50s and 60s, lived in the 106-year-old building with boarded-up windows and relied on space heaters for heat. They were removed from the decrepit building in February 2009 when it was shut down by the state over fire safety concerns.

The EEOC is seeking lost wages for two years prior to when Henry’s Turkey Service operations ended in 2009. The amount will be based on minimum wages and on pay levels commensurate with work performed by non-disabled workers doing the same job, the agency said.

A report from the EEOC in 2010 indicated the men were underpaid by more than $1 million during the last three years of the company’s operation.

The agency also is seeking compensatory and punitive damages.

“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,” said EEOC attorney Robert Canino.

The U.S. Department of Labor has filed a separate minimum wage and overtime lawsuit against Henry’s Turkey Service under the Fair Labor Standards Act. Trial is set for later this year. Last month, an administrative judge with Iowa Workforce Development found Henry’s Turkey Service was responsible for a $1.2 million fine in connection with the case.

No criminal charges have been filed.

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