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Mentally Handicapped Kept in Appalling Conditions, Working at a Turkey Plant

by: Jill Richardson

Thu Feb 12, 2009 at 23:42:17 PM PST

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Holy you-know-what. A meat processing plant in Iowa has been caught mistreating mentally handicapped employees. File that one under "Just when you thought it couldn't get any worse."

From The Des Moines Register (which is rapidly becoming one of my favorite newspapers):

Since the late 1970s, Henry's Turkey Service has been shipping mentally retarded men from Texas to Iowa to work in the West Liberty plant. Henry's has acted as the workers' employer, landlord and caregiver - paying the men a reduced wage for their work at the plant and then deducting from their pay the cost of room, board and care. Payroll records indicate the men are left with as little as $65 per month in salary.

Did you read that? $65 per month. Here's how they pull that one off:

Keith Brown, 57, has lived there since 1979. His sister, Sherri Brown, said her brother has $80 in the bank after working 30 years for Henry's.

Payroll records obtained by the Register show that in January Henry's Turkey Service deducted $487 from Brown's earnings to pay for his room and board. The company also deducted $572 for "kind care," although the bunkhouse is an unregulated group home, not a facility that provides medical care or assistance.

That's $487 for room and board per month per person even though the ENTIRE BUILDING cost the company $600 total to rent each month. There were 21 men, mostly in their 50s and 60s, living in these conditions, in a building known as "the bunkhouse." Let's see... $487 x 21... $10,227 per month in room and board from these guys when the entire building costs $600.

The 106-year-old bunkhouse, once a school, sits high on a windswept hilltop in Atalissa.

The cracked foundation, locked doors, and boarded-up windows have long given the structure the appearance of an abandoned building.

Later, the article mentions that the bunkhouse had a nasty cockroach problem and it was incredibly cold and drafty. The men's caretaker, who does sound very loving towards them, put plywood over the windows to help with the drafts because so many repairs were needed and not done.

And what do these men do for their $65 or so a month?

Typically, their days began at 2:30 a.m., when they were awakened. At 4:30 a.m., they were taken into the still-dark yard and loaded into passenger vans for the six-mile drive to the West Liberty plant. Once there, they donned protective clothing and went to work "on the line," cleaning turkeys. Gene Berg, a 53-year-old cancer patient, has worked there as a "gut puller." Billy and Robert Penner, two brothers in their 60s, have pulled guts and plucked feathers.

Legally, the plant can pay these men less than minimum wage because, in theory, their special needs make them less productive than other employees.

The FBI is investigating and this is a terrible embarrassment for the town where it occurred that nobody intervened sooner. The men were taken from "the bunkhouse" after their story was discovered and moved to a hotel, but now there's a question about where they will go.

Jill Richardson :: Mentally Handicapped Kept in Appalling Conditions, Working at a Turkey Plant
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Disgusting... (4.00 / 2)
Kenneth J. Henry, who runs Henry's Turkey Service, declined to comment. "I'm not going to answer any of your questions," he told The Des Moines Register on Friday.

That's okay, hopefully he'll soon be answering questions of the judge; and then those of corrections officers somewhere for a few years...

How many times... (4.00 / 2)
...are we gonna hear about things like this before something gets done once and for all?

What century is this again?

no joke (4.00 / 2)
and where's upton sinclair when you need him?

You know what I'm hoping... I hope that the Des Moines Register can get more details out of that turkey plant. And I hope this makes big headlines nationally. This needs to be a national story so people know. I'm putting it up at Dailykos tomorrow.

"I can understand someone from Iowa promoting corn and soy, but we are not feeding the world, we are feeding animals and soft drink companies." - Jim Goodman

[ Parent ]
Does Barbara Ehrenreich (4.00 / 2)
know about this?

It sounds like involuntary servitude to me...I thought there were laws about that (although between you, me, & Flying Spaghetti Monster, the GOP is all for indentured slavery).

The most remarkable thing about my mother is that for thirty years she served the family nothing but leftovers. The original meal has never been found. -- Calvin Trillin

[ Parent ]
thank you for writing this up (4.00 / 2)
I was planning to do it several days ago but just forgot.

Horrendous story.

as luck would have it (4.00 / 1)
I spoke to an Iowan on the phone who told me about it.

"I can understand someone from Iowa promoting corn and soy, but we are not feeding the world, we are feeding animals and soft drink companies." - Jim Goodman

[ Parent ]
I'm Not at All Surprised... (4.00 / 2)
by this.  It's not really different from the oppression of immigrant workers at chicken and other processing plants.  Immigrants, mentally disabled, eh,  they're all the same, it's all one aspect or another of the human slavery that is a larger part of our existence than anybody knows or suspects.

Yes, we do need another Upton Sinclair and another great reform movement.  But Sinclair was supported by a lot of the press (the only media of his time) I expect.  But in today's world, Sinclair would be shouted down and vilified by the the MSM and their right-wing talking hacks.

Still, I think that when they get past (somewhat) the current economic crisis, the Obama people will start doing something about the food safety system.  Vilsack, at least, has been making some good noises about it.  And insisting on humane working conditions for these people is really part of making our food safer.

Obama and his people get criticized a lot because they don't deal with all problems at once and immediately.  But they really are a progressive group of people who will push for great changes in our country.

Another thought... (4.00 / 2)
Talking about these situations on blogs like this will help bring them to the attention of more people.  Especially if you can get it talked about on other, related blogs.

And, Jill, have you thought about sending this posting down to some newspapers in Texas?  This is the kind of muck-raking article that newspapers down there might like to play up since these employees are Texans, you said above.

It's an interesting thought: taking a more pro-active role in distributing these stories to people who might be interested. It would help to develop a political push to correct these injustices.

A lot of the Texas papers... (0.00 / 0)
actually have covered this story so far.

I went googling this last night when I first read it here, and I saw stories from as early as February 8 in the Houston Chronicle, The Austin American-Statesman and a couple others...

Which actually makes me wonder why I hadn't heard of this yet, and probably never would have if it wasn't for Jill's post.  

This thing has been kept strangely quiet, it seems.  Is it just timing, or something else?

Thanks again Jill, for putting this out there!

[ Parent ]
I would guess it's timing... (4.00 / 1)
and the fact that national news has been dominated by the stimulus bill/bank bailout stories, as well as salmonella and a few other stories.  National MSM are not really capable of carrying very many stories at one time. I doubt there is any conspiracy, which I think is what you seem to be hinting.  

[ Parent ]
Well... (0.00 / 0)
There's a bit more ground between timing and conspiracy theories, but thanks.

[ Parent ]
I saw that a TX newspaper got it (4.00 / 1)
Austin Statesman I think. Seems like the AP picked it up.

"I can understand someone from Iowa promoting corn and soy, but we are not feeding the world, we are feeding animals and soft drink companies." - Jim Goodman

[ Parent ]
As Governor, Did Vilsack Know? (4.00 / 2)
Didn't the Agriprocessor problems occur during his time
as governor?  

It is very hard to believe that for almost 40 years the Turkey Plant has been doing this with no questions asked.

Actually... (4.00 / 1)
there seems to be a bit of the PCA story in this one, as well.

The plant's been under investigation many times in the past for seemingly minor infractions, but every time it seemed some agency just asked a few questions and then dropped the matter.  I read articles on this last night that mentioned that this plant was being investigated for things going back to the mid-1980's at least.

Vilsack probably didn't know, because the article above mentions that even the current and previous Mayors of the town had no idea what was going on there.  And the City itself owned that building.  Which brings up another question.  Did the city even want to know what was going on?

These state agencies need more enforcement powers or better training or something, because they ain't getting the job done.

[ Parent ]
Legacy of the shrub years! (4.00 / 2)

[ Parent ]
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