In the largest verdict in the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s history, an Iowa jury awarded $240 millon to 32 men with disabilities who were abused for decades at Henry’s Turkey Service in Atalissa, Iowa.
“These men suffered isolation and exploitation for many years, while their employer cruelly consumed the fruits of their labor,” said Robert A. Canino, regional attorney of the EEOC’s Dallas District Office, in a news release. “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.”
From the 1970s until 2009, the men were paid as low as $0.41 an hour while the farm collected the worker’s Social Security checks. The workers, many who had not obtained health care for decades, were frequently subjected to hitting, kicking and in at least one case of handcuffing, while frequently being referred to as “retarded,” “dumb ass” and “stupid.”
Conditions at the facility included a “lack of central heat, fire-safety violations and cockroaches so numerous that one social worker said she could hear them in the walls,” according to a Des Moines Register article.
The state shut down the farm in 2009 and the EEOC sued Texas-based Hill County Farms, which owns Henry’s Turkey Service, in 2011.
The jury awarded the men $5.5 million each in compensatory damages and $2 million in punitive damages.
“The amount of this jury award is phenomenal in assigning responsibility for all of the wrongdoing that took place, and it also sends a message that this sort of conduct deserves more than a slap on the hand,” Dr. Sue Gant, an expert witness who testified for the EEOC, told the Register. “But how do you put a value on decades of lost opportunity? You can’t recapture those years… These men were hidden away for decades, and for others’ personal gain. These were humans who were treated like cattle — like company property, like just another source of income for the company.”
The farm was also ordered to pay $1.3 million in back wages in October 2012 by the U.S. District Court for the District Court of Iowa. The National Disability Rights Network also featured the farm in January 2011 about subminimum wages for people with disabilities.
“The verdict sends an important message that the conduct that occurred here is intolerable in this nation, and hopefully will help to restore dignity and acknowledge the humanity of the workers who were mistreated for so many years,” EEOC Chair Jacqueline A. Berrien said in the news release.
A video about the farm from the Register can be seen here.