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Workers with Disabilities Awarded $240 Million for Long-Term Abuse

Respect and Fair-Treatment Key Ethical Values in Disabilities Lawsuit and EEOC Award

On Wednesday, May 1, 2013, a Davenport, Iowa jury today awarded the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) damages totaling $240 million - the largest verdict in the federal agency's history - for disability discrimination and severe abuse. The $240 million verdict stems from a disability discrimination and abuse case involving a turkey company. I was thrilled to read of the verdict because it shows respect for those with disabilities and the need for fair treatment in the workplace -- a basic ethical value and foundational tenet of our society. However, the decision does remind us all that many people with disabilities are harmed by illegal discrimination in the workplace.

The EEOC's disability discrimination lawsuit accused Hill County Farms, which was doing business as Henry's Turkey Service, of subjecting 32 men who have intellectual disabilities to not only discrimination but also severe abuse from 2007 to 2009 at a labor camp in Iowa. The EEOC actually believes the company has been mistreating disabled workers at the camp for decades, in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, but the case was limited to the company's last two years of operation as required under federal law.

Over a period of about 40 years, Hill County Farms reportedly sent 1500 intellectually disabled men from Texas to Iowa where they worked in a meat processing plant. They were paid only 41 cents an hour. They were housed in a bunkhouse that had substandard living conditions, and which was finally shut down in 2009 when reporters at the Des Moines Register learned of it and began asking the state about the company's lack of any license to care for people with disabilities.

The men, who worked eviscerating turkeys, were physically abused and treated poorly daily, according to the lawsuit.

The men who worked at the plant from 2007 to 2009 were each awarded $5.5 million in compensatory damages and $2 million in punitive damages. In September, in a separate case, the company was also ordered to pay the men $1.3 million for the disability-based wage discrimination discussed below.

In addition to the EEOC disability-based harassment and discrimination verdict, the EEOC earlier won a $1.3 million wage discrimination judgment when Senior U.S. District Court Judge Charles R. Wolle found that, rather than the total of $65 dollars per month Henry's Turkey paid to the disabled workers while contracted to work on an evisceration line at the plant, the employees should have been compensated at the average wage of $11-12 per hour, reflecting pay typically earned by workers without intellectual disabilities who performed the same or similar work.  The EEOC's wage claims for each worker ranged from $28,000 to $45,000 in lost income over the course of their last two years before the Henry's Turkey Service operation was shut down in February 2009.

The sad part of this case is that the victims are not expected to actually receive the full amount of their jury awards because the company only has $4 million in assets. However, the EEOC is reportedly working to access as much compensation as possible for these men.

The EEOC disability discrimination case is ground-breaking in that it demonstrates that disabled workers have as much value as people without disabilities. The case reminds us all that we live in a free and equal society. There is no place in the workplace for unequal treatment of workers based on one’s religion, national heritage, sex, age, sexual preference, and existing disability. Let’s hope this case is the beginning of a new awareness of the indignities directed toward those with disabilities and the humanity of our ethical responsibilities to all citizens.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on May 8, 2013