Journalism in the Public Interest

‘Abuse’ Raises Question About Law for Disabled Workers

 A scandal rocking an Iowa town of barely 250 has ballooned into a statewide story. But it has national implications.

Last month, FBI agents, social services and health department officials in Iowa converged on a 106-year-old bunkhouse. It’s where dozens of mentally retarded men lived when they were not working for as little as 37 cents per hour gutting turkeys in a processing plant, according to news reports and documents released by state officials.

Some of the men had been working at the plant and living at the company-owned bunkhouse since the 1970s. The arrangement grew out of a Depression-era federal law that allows employers to pay disabled workers less than the minimum wage. Roughly 400,000 workers are currently covered by the law.

The 21 men in question are Texans who work for a company called Henry’s Turkey Service. According to reports in the Des Moines Register, Henry’s took advantage of a section of the labor law that allows the company to pay lower than minimum wage to disabled workers – and to deduct their living expenses from their pay.

Henry’s, a Texas company, in the 1970s started taking the deinstitutionalized men to Iowa, where they worked at a plant owned by West Liberty Foods, one of the nation’s largest turkey processors.

West Liberty released a statement to the Register saying it had an “agreement” with the turkey service and played no role in housing the men or paying their wages. Turkey service owner Kenneth J. Henry declined to comment but referred ProPublica to his attorney.

The men were treated well and the bunkhouse was comfortable, Iowa attorney David Scieszinski said. Further, he said the furor over the men’s situation is simply “politics” on the part of legislators who have never set foot in the bunkhouse.

“[Politicians] don’t know,” Scieszinski said to ProPublica. “But they start making political statements.”

The men lived in the building that Henry’s Turkey Service rented for $600 per month from the city of Atalissa. In turn, Henry’s deducted as much as $40,000 per month from the men’s wages and Social Security income, said Sen. Tom Harkin in a hearing last week.

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) (WDCPIX) “Needless to say, the abuses exposed at Atalissa shock the conscience,” Harkin said during the hearing.

Harkin convened a Senate labor committee hearing last week on the section of the Fair Labor Standards Act that allows employers to pay disabled workers lower-than-minimum wages.

The provision was well-intended: It would give companies an incentive to give disabled people a vocation and sense of life’s worth.

But since the waning days of the Great Depression, the law has been widely abused, according to a 2005 investigation by the Oregonian, which revealed companies enriching themselves at the expense of poorly paid, high-functioning workers.

Last week’s hearing focused on oversight of the law. It’s up to for-profit employers, like Henry’s Turkey Service, to submit an annual application to the Labor Department justifying their practice of paying workers low wages, describing workers’ productivity and abilities.

John McKeon, a department enforcement official, testified that three employees in Chicago each review about 800 applications each year.

More than 700 Labor Department investigators inspect the work sites around the country. Investigators are also charged with checking that companies only deduct the fair cost of room and board from workers’ checks.

McKeon said the department is low on resources – in 1975 the wage and hour division fielded twice the number of inspectors. And, he said, its clout to penalize employers who exploit workers has diminished as the number of attorneys who work on behalf of the department has waned.

McKeon did not speak about Henry’s Turkey Service specifically and spokespeople have declined to comment to the press.

The arrangement, it turns out, had been exposed long before. The federal Labor Department was aware of the payment arrangement as early as 1999.

A Labor Department inspector general’s report (page 20) shows that department staffers knew that in 1998, Henry’s Turkey Service claimed to pay about 50 men $5.65 an hour, but after deducting rent and board, ultimately gave them each $60 per month.

The company’s justification? It had to keep $60,000 that year to recoup the cost of renovations to the men’s bunkhouse that had been completed in the 1970s.

Last month an Iowa fire marshal noted the profusion of space heaters in the building and declared it unfit for habitation. Iowa social services officials moved the men from the home.

The story has also peeled back a page in Iowa history. As early as 1974, a social services worker in Iowa called the program “obscene.”

“Once a resident becomes an employee of Henry’s Turkey Service, he…loses most basic human rights,” social worker Ed George wrote in a memo released Feb. 24 by the Iowa Department of Human Services.

In 1997, the county social department fielded complaints that the men had sustained bruises and unhealed fractures. But officials failed to act, with one official noting in an e-mail that he didn’t want Muscatine County to be left “holding the bag” for Texas’ residents.

Scieszinski said that each time officials looked into Henry’s Turkey Service, the company asked if there was anything it could do and was consistently told “no.”

Barry Schmittou

March 20, 2009, 5:01 p.m.

I have received no response to my request that Propublica investigate my evidence including quotes from numerous U.S. Judges that proves large numbers of injured workers and disabled people in the U.S. are having their lives endangered by insurance companies that intentionally ignore life threatening medical conditions. You can see the evidence by going to and

No insurance company objected or denied the evidence when I had it placed on the docket of the U.S. Supreme Court. The pro business Supreme Court Justices did nothing in spite of the destruction of so many lives !!

There’s something missing from this story:interviews with disability rights activists and organizations.  I’m surprised.  Start with ADAPT who can refer a journalist to many groups.  You can go to Stephen Drake of Not Dead Yet who knows activists in all areas of disability rights.

anonymity is the key to Big AgriBiz profitablity. Not just their workers,but also the livestock they hand. Not having any connection allows for abuses.
It’s not a surprise that this has been ignored by Officials- same goes for the other shadow work force who face similar unfair & dangerous conditions for employment, (Illegal Migrants).If min Wage is considered the ‘floor’.These should be seen as the ‘subfloor’ of the labor force- in wages, conditions and human rights. This is the ‘floor’ Corps are attempting to push all american worker.these type of workers are not just victims, but area also used as scapegoats and threats to other workers to comply with Corp standards.Bu tit is not just th estates that allow this secret workforce to continue- it is workers who fail to stand up for thee groups rights as fellow laborers.By blaming ‘illegals’ for ‘Stealing our jobs’, we let those that hire them off the hook of blame,thus enable them to continue without legal repercussions.It is not the applicates fault they wre illegally hired- it’s the Employers. It’s time the American Worker Demands that ALL those who work in this country be afforded the rights and protections guaranteed by the nations labor laws- Union, non union, disabled and non citizens.This will not only end the proliferation of ‘subfloor’ employment practices & abuse, but will assure employers will employ those who offer the best skills and knowledge when hiring (more bang for their buck).
The anonymity also effects food safety standards. The sheer numbers of animals on Corp farms assures that the ability to monitor each animal for health is practically impossible, even worse when entering the slaughter shoot. Small farmers breed, raise and care for these animals in far fewer numbers, thus on a more personal basis- far better animal husbandry methods are more readily applied. Further the small farmer’s livelihood rests on the quality of product they produce- so animal health and welfare is key to profittablity.Large corps make profits off the ‘law of averages’ which level out as the groups grow larger.Sickly underwieght animals will be made up for in poundage by heavier & healthier animals on the ‘Bottom line’. This perpetuate not only animal neglect, but food borne illness (not to mention the likelihood of Hormone use to jack up the weights, of otherwise substandard animals).
With small Farmers the ‘buck stops with them’ not only in their aniamls conditions, but also their workers- there can be no cross finger pointing.
Big Agri Business has done harm to the livestock animals, their Workers, the American labor force and the American consumer (food borne illness and no reduction in food costs either). It’s time to end this experiment and return farming to Farmers, not Suits and Logos.

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