Trial to shed light on treatment of ‘the boys’ at Iowa turkey plant

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Posted: Tuesday, April 23, 2013 12:00 am

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — A now-defunct Texas company that put men with mental disabilities to work at an Iowa turkey plant for decades is due in court to defend itself against allegations that it subjected the men to physical and verbal abuse.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is suing Henry’s Turkey Service of Goldthwaite, Texas, on behalf of 32 former workers whom it housed and oversaw while they worked at West Liberty Foods in West Liberty, Iowa. The commission is expected to seek damages against Henry’s for allegedly subjecting the men to abuse that “created an atmosphere of fear and intimidation,” court filings show.

The men, long known locally as “the boys,” worked at the plant from the 1970s until 2009, when Iowa officials placed them in the state’s care and shut down the bunkhouse where they lived after finding unsafe conditions.

The action triggered numerous state and federal investigations, which found the men were severely underpaid. For three decades, each was paid $65 per month — or roughly 41 cents per hour — for their work processing slaughtered turkeys. There were no raises.

U.S. District Judge Charles Wolle has already ordered Henry’s to pay $1.37 million in back pay in the case, saying Henry’s deducted too much from their checks to cover living expenses.

At the federal trial this week in Davenport, the commission is expected to argue that the men faced “discriminatory terms and conditions of employment” in violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act.

The trial is expected to feature testimony about how the men faced shoddy living conditions at an old, converted former schoolhouse.

The commission is expected to argue that the men faced unnecessarily harsh discipline and that Henry’s operators didn’t provide the men with adequate medical care, expected the men to work regardless of illnesses and injuries and sometimes denied the men bathroom breaks, the commission alleges.

The company’s attorney, David Scieszinski, did not respond to a message seeking comment.

Henry’s was started by Texas rancher T.H. Johnson, with the government’s backing, as a way to employ men with disabilities rather than having them live in taxpayer-funded institutions, said Johnson’s daughter, Mina Kay Martin of Burnet, Texas. She said her family treated the boys as their own and recalled how her father lived for years with the men at the Iowa bunkhouse in Atalissa, which is seven miles from the plant.

After her father’s death in 2007, she said the company was in the process of winding down the operation and moving the men into nursing homes for retirement. Martin said she was horrified when she discovered conditions at the bunkhouse had become filthy and heard that some of them had been mistreated by Dru and Randy Neubauer, a West Liberty couple who supervised them for Henry’s.

“I know it went bad there at the very end,” she said. “It was never, ever our intention for anything bad to happen to those boys, ever. We did it for too many years. It was just a labor of love for all of us.”

Martin said she expects to receive a warm welcome from “the boys” in the courtroom.

The EEOC allegations focus on conditions between 2007 and 2009, when the Neubauers supervised the men. A phone number for the Neubauers was disconnected.

The Iowa Attorney General’s Office has declined to charge anyone in the case, saying that the civil penalties sought by regulators were enough to hold company officials accountable.

© 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.



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