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Disabled Workers’ Victory Exposes Risks To Most Vulnerable

For decades, Liberty Foods housed 21 mentally disabled men in squalor in this former schoolhouse in Atalissa, Iowa. The EEOC won a judgment against the company for exploiting the men.

Four years ago, 21 men with intellectual disabilities were emancipated from a bright blue, century-old schoolhouse in Atalissa, Iowa. They ranged in age from their 40s to their 60s, and for most of their adult lives they had worked for next to nothing and lived in dangerously unsanitary conditions.

Earlier this month, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission won a massive judgment against the turkey processing company at which the men worked. The civil suit involved severe physical and emotional abuse of men with intellectual disabilities.

The EEOC now says the $240 million judgment will be reduced because it exceeds a legal cap on jury awards. But the case highlights the difficulty of preventing and identifying abuse of vulnerable workers, who are also the least likely to come forward about violations.

Susan Seehase, director of Exceptional Persons, a support center that took in most of the men in Iowa, visited their old dwelling. Windows were boarded up, allowing little ventilation or light. The cockroaches were overwhelming, she says. A leaky roof, mildew, accumulated grease and mice droppings contributed to an overwhelming stench.

A fire marshal immediately condemned the building, later testifying it was the worst he'd seen in nearly 3,000 inspections.

Decades Of Abuse, For $2 Per Day

The men had worked at a nearby processing plant, gutting turkeys under the watchful eye of a contractor called Hill County Farms. The contractor was paid to oversee the men's work and living arrangements. The supervisors hit, kicked, handcuffed and verbally abused the men, who were each paid $2 per day. This went on for three decades, affecting 32 men.

Seehase says medical exams later revealed the men suffered diabetes, hypertension, malnutrition, festering fungal infections and severe dental problems that had gone untreated.

It went on and on, she says, because the men knew nothing better and because no one reported the abuse.

"Their life experiences didn't tell them that there was really another option for them," Seehase says. "It's incredibly difficult to try to understand. And I have no explanation. And I don't know who can explain how this really happened."

Kenneth Henry, the owner of Hill County Farms, could not be reached and his attorney didn't respond to requests seeking comment. In testimony, Henry acknowledged paying the men $65 a month, but denied knowing about the neglect or abuse.

Robert Canino, the prosecuting attorney for the EEOC office that won the verdict, says, "We are always shocked to find out about these extreme cases, because we don't believe that they could have happened in our own backyard."

This year, the EEOC is making a priority of prosecuting cases involving "vulnerable workers." Examples include migrant farm workers who are raped by supervisors in the fields, or those who are the most likely to be exploited and least able to speak out in their own defense.

'People That We See But Don't Notice'

Canino says the turkey workers' case reminds him of human-trafficking cases he's prosecuted. The men were originally from Texas but transported out of state, where they lived isolated lives. He says vulnerable workers often remain silent because they don't know their legal rights. They're usually isolated by design from family, friends and community, and live in fear of abuse.

"We see the impact of the verdict as one that will hopefully open all our eyes to be more vigilant as a society, to be more watchful," Canino says. "Maybe they're people who we see but we don't notice. We don't notice them because we consciously or subconsciously assign them to some different station in life, and we assume that we can't connect with them, we can't relate to them, so we go about our business."

This case, he says, demonstrates the cost of failing to notice. "It's a wake-up call, and hopefully we don't ever in the future have to ask the question: 'How could this go on for so long and nobody notice?' "

Hill County Farms, also known as Henry's Turkey Service, is now out of business. Canino says it's unclear how much of the money will be recovered to compensate the men. But he says they say the real value of the victory isn't the money.

"They told me that they were glad that people knew their story was the truth," Canino says. "They fully understand the concept of people understanding them and believing them and then valuing them. They got that."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit www.npr.org.

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