Landmark verdict sends message about disability discrimination

Wisconsin residents may have heard that a landmark Americans with Disabilities Act case came to a close this week. The case involved a Texas turkey processor that ran a labor camp for mentally disabled men in Iowa for decades until the Des Moines Register brought the camp to the attention of state officials in 2009.

Earlier this week, a jury awarded each of 32 former employees of Henry’s Turkey Service $7.5 million, ending this sad case that shined a light on the abuse and discrimination suffered by hundreds of men at the camp over the years.

The employees were sent from Texas to live in a bunkhouse in rural Iowa while they worked at a turkey processing plant, which paid Henry’s Turkey Service to supply them under the terms of a contract that began in the 1970s.

In 2009, state officials learned that the bunkhouse included a number of unsafe and unsanitary conditions–including rodent and bug infestations, fire hazards and a leaky roof. They also learned that many of the men who lived there had medical problems that needed immediate attention. In addition to the poor living circumstances, the men were reportedly physically and verbally abused by their supervisors at home and at work.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sued the company when it learned of these major violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act and basic civil rights. The total verdict, which amounts to about $240 million, is the largest ever obtained by the EEOC, and possibly the largest verdict related to the Americans with Disabilities Act.

In addition to the physical abuse and egregious discrimination, the men were paid only $65 a week–or 41 cents an hour. A judge previously ordered the company to pay the men more than $1.3 million in back wages.

The case involved only 32 former employees because federal law limited it to include only the years 2007 to 2009.

it is unclear how much of the $240 million the victims in this case will actually receive as the company is now defunct.

This case should be a reminder to employers and employees that workers cannot be treated unfairly on the basis of a disability or percieved disability.  American workers–disabled and non-disabled–have civil rights that must be both respected and protected.

Source: Des Moines Register, “Jury: $240 million for Atalissa workers,” May 1, 2013

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