Four years ago, an Iowa jury handed a
group of intellectually disabled workers who had been exploited for
years the nation’s largest-ever award in an employment discrimination
case: a staggering $240 million.
was intended to compensate 32 men for the decades they'd spent
in indentured servitude while employed by Henry’s Turkey Service, a
labor broker accused of paying the men as little as 41 cents an hour
while providing them with housing in a dilapidated bunkhouse on the
outskirts of Atalissa.
The jury's award was
immediately slashed to just $1.6 million — less than 1 percent of the
amount specified by jurors — because of federal caps on damages.
Even so, the verdict represented an uplifting final chapter in a long story of exploitation and abuse.
But now that story has an unexpected postscript.
Canino, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission lawyer who pursued
the case against Henry's, is back in federal court.
time, he's fighting Joseph Paul Byrd, a former Henry’s Turkey Service
supervisor who took over the company’s Newberry, South Carolina, labor
camp in the 1980s and kept it running for another 30 years.
September 2016, the EEOC sued Byrd's company, Work Services Inc.,
alleging it had forced its intellectually disabled workers to live in a
crowded, substandard bunkhouse, paid them “unconscionable wages” that
were less than what nondisabled workers were paid, and subjected the men
to a hostile work environment in which they were called “stupid,”
“retarded” and “dumb.”
The company has denied the allegations, and a trial is scheduled for August.
the discovery of this situation, answers, in part, the question that
has arisen since the disturbing Henry's Turkey Service operation came to
light in Iowa a few years ago," Canino said.
"After seeing how workers
with intellectual disabilities had fallen between the societal cracks,
being virtually invisible for decades, many have asked, 'Could there be
any other situations like this out there or right in our own backyards?'
answer, sadly, turned out to be, 'Yes' — and what we found here serves
to remind us all to remain vigilant against such abuse of our neighbors
Workers exploited at every turn
a deposition taken last December as part of a lawsuit brought by the
U.S. Department of Labor, Byrd acknowledged that the six disabled
workers who lived in the two trailers that made up the Newberry
bunkhouse were each charged $800 in monthly rent, while the three or
four nondisabled men who lived there paid monthly rent of $150 to $200
During his deposition, Byrd was unable to
explain the disparity, except to say that he was maintaining practices
established by his former employer, Henry’s Turkey Service, decades
“That’s just the way it was always done,” he
told a lawyer for the Department of Labor. “That’s simply the way it was
when I started.”
In his deposition, Byrd also
acknowledged that he and his manager, David Perez, forged signatures on
the disabled men’s paychecks and cashed them, then paid the men weekly
allowances of $50 to $80 each.
Byrd also testified
that he took the men’s disability checks as compensation for room and
board and deposited the men’s tax refunds into a company account used to
pay his personal and business expenses.
to Byrd, he began working for Henry’s Turkey Service in 1968, when the
company was populating labor camps across the United States with
intellectually disabled men recently discharged from state-run
institutions in Texas.
Byrd said that because his
job was to supervise the individuals running the various labor camps, he
traveled from one site to the next, in Iowa, Texas, Missouri, Illinois,
South Carolina and Kansas.
At one time, Iowa was home to three labor camps runs by Henry’s — in Ellsworth, Storm Lake and Atalissa.
1985, Byrd went into business on his own, purchasing the Henry’s labor
camp operation in Newberry, South Carolina. At the time, he said, the
bunkhouse consisted of 15 disabled men living in a set of trailers
across the street from a turkey processing plant.
the next 30 years, the men who worked at the plant would arrive there
in the morning, help unload live turkeys from trucks, hang them on hooks
and kill them. It was, as Byrd later acknowledged, difficult and
By 2009, some of the men had
become too old or sick to continue working. A few of them retired but
continued to live in the bunkhouse. The same was true at Henry’s last
remaining bunkhouse, in Atalissa.
operation already was winding down in February 2009 when a Des Moines
Register investigation triggered a raid by state and federal
authorities. All of the Atalissa workers were relocated to fully
licensed care facilities, and the bunkhouse was shut down.
Byrd’s South Carolina operation continued to do business until late
2014, when New York Times reporter Dan Barry, working on a book about
the Atalissa operation, discovered the Newberry bunkhouse and reported that six of the original Henry’s workers were still living there
of health problems, two of the men — Claude Wren and Johnny Hickman —
had retired from work at the Louis Rich processing plant across the
street from the Newberry bunkhouse, Byrd told the Department of Labor.
four others — Leon Jones, Carlos Morris, and Jay and John Koch — were
still working at the plant and collecting $50 to $100 per week in
compensation from Work Services.
Seeking compensation for the workers
to corporate tax records, Work Services Inc. had annual gross receipts
of almost $1 million at that time. An affiliate, Work Service Co.,
reported more than $600,000 in gross receipts.
2015, the U.S. Department of Labor filed suit against Work Services,
Byrd and Perez, alleging they had failed to pay the disabled workers the
legally required minimum wage; failed to pay overtime; and failed to
keep adequate payroll records.
But the lawsuit was
limited in scope: Under federal law, the department could seek payment
of only two years’ worth of back wages.
February, Senior U.S. District Judge Henry Herlong sided with the
Department of Labor, granting the agency summary judgment before a trial
could take place.
The judge called Byrd’s claim
that the workers wanted the company to keep their wages for
them “ludicrous,” and he ordered the defendants to pay $165,404 in back
wages and damages.
Seven months later, the EEOC
filed its own lawsuit against Work Services, alleging violations of the
Americans with Disabilities Act.
lawsuit, if successful, could result in far greater damages than the
Department of Labor case, because it seeks compensation in three
categories: money for the men’s financial losses; for emotional pain,
loss of enjoyment of life and humiliation; and punitive damages for the
“malicious or reckless conduct” of the company.
his December 2016 deposition, Byrd acknowledged his bookkeeping at the
bunkhouse wasn’t adequate — he kept thousands of dollars owed to the men
stuffed inside envelopes hidden at his home, he said — but that he
considered the workers family.
“I did a really poor
job of keeping records,” he said. “I was trying real hard to take care
of them and make their life a little easier and, hopefully, create a
place where they could live the rest of their lives. … I had a lot of
affection for each and every one of them. Well, when you’ve spent a
third of your life or more with them, they become part of your family,
Two of the disabled Henry's workers are
related: Carl Wayne Jones and Leon Jones are brothers, just a year apart
in age. They began working for Henry's in the late 1960s, but the
company eventually split them up, sending Carl to Atalissa and Leon to
For decades, the two men didn't see each other.
in 2014, Canino, the EEOC attorney, set up a Skype connection that
enabled the two men, then in their mid-60s, to see and speak to each
other for the first time in years.
According to the
New York Times, Carl Wayne shared the news that their mother had died
long ago; he also talked about his girlfriend and the group home in
Waterloo where he lived with some of his friends from the Atalissa
This year, Carl and his girlfriend got
married. Leon rented a tuxedo and, along with some of his friends from
the Newberry bunkhouse, traveled to Iowa for the wedding.
missed being there," Canino says, "but I am so happy the South Carolina
and Iowa guys got to reconnect a bit — especially Carl and Leon."
Henry's Turkey Service still owes millions
criminal charges were ever filed against Henry’s Turkey Service for the
alleged financial exploitation of its Iowa workers, labor law
violations, fire-code citations or the lack of a care-facility license
at the Atalissa bunkhouse.
At the time, Iowa
Attorney General Tom Miller said the better course of action was to have
other agencies pursue civil remedies against company owner Kenneth
Henry of Proctor, Texas, who was worth about $3 million.
Several state and federal agencies imposed administrative penalties, or won court judgments, against the company.
eventually totaled $5.9 million, but Kenneth Henry refused to surrender
any of his assets or enter into a payment-plan agreement with the
federal government before he died in April 2016.
recent years, however, the U.S. Department of Justice, the Equal
Employment Opportunity Commission and the U.S. Department of Labor have
aggressively pursued collection efforts.
they have distributed roughly $800,000 to the disabled former employees
of Henry's. They expect to soon collect an additional $900,000 from the
estate of Kenneth Henry, which should bring the total recovery for the
Atalissa workers to $1.7 million.
Here's a look at the various judgments and penalties imposed against Henry's:
- May 2009:
Iowa Workforce Development imposed a $900,000 penalty against Henry's
for violating state labor laws. The penalty was later increased to more
than $1.1 million.
- November 2009:
The U.S. Department of Labor sued the company for federal labor law
violations, resulting in a court judgment against the company for $1.8
- September 2012:
After the company offered no resistance or defense to allegations that
it violated the fair-wage provisions of the Americans With Disabilities
Act, a federal judge ordered Henry’s to pay $1.3 million to 32 of its
- May 2013:
An Iowa jury returned a verdict of $240 million against Henry’s Turkey
Service for discriminatory employment conditions, but the jury verdict
was later reduced to $1.6 million because of federal caps on damages in
Full Article & Source:
Echoes of Atalissa: Federal agency sues bunkhouse owner for exploiting mentally disabled workers