Workers win $240 million verdict from Texas company

Posted Friday, May. 03, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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For years, Jeff Long and 31 other men netted 41 cents an hour from a Texas company — after hefty deductions for food and lodging — for slaughtering turkeys in Iowa until a fire inspector condemned their dilapidated bunkhouse in 2009, effectively ending the operation.

On Wednesday, after arguing that the 32 Texans with varying degrees of mental disabilities were kept in “virtual enslavement,” the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission won a federal jury award of $240 million from Henry’s Turkey Service of Goldthwaite. That works out to $7.5 million for each worker.

“These men suffered isolation and exploitation for many years, while their employer cruelly consumed the fruits of their labor,” said Robert A. Canino, regional attorney of the EEOC’s Dallas District Office, which pursued the case.

News reports said that Canino, who had worked on the case for four years, broke down and cried when the jury verdict was announced.

Kenneth Henry, 72, president of Henry’s, a unit of Hill Country Foods, told Iowa’s Quad-City Times that he planned to appeal, calling some of the evidence “terribly exaggerated.” As for the multi-million-dollar jury award, Henry said, “Do you think I can write a check for that?”

It’s too early to say how much Long, 53, who now lives in a Fort Worth group home and is a FedEx employee, and the other workers will get because of statutory caps on such awards, Canino, a Grapevine resident, said Friday.

As it stands, the $240 million jury award is the biggest ever won in the department’s 41-year history. Last year, the EEOC secured a judgment of $1.3 million for back pay, based on minimum wages. But Canino came back with another action, noting that many of the jobs required skilled workers.

Jurors were told that the men were called “retarded,” “dumb ass” and “stupid,” and were physically struck and kicked. In at least one case, a disabled worker was handcuffed to a bed. Other punishment included being forced to walk in circles lugging heavy weights. One man had been kicked in the groin and was found with “testicles that were quite swollen,” an EEOC psychologist testified. Others were often locked in their bedrooms at night, she said. Moreover, windows leaked during rainstorms, soaking the men’s beds.

Henry testified that abusive supervisors were dismissed, the Des Moines Register reported.

Although a processing company paid Henry’s Turkey Service $500,000 toward workers’ wages in 2007, the men got earned just $65 a month, the EEOC alleged.

The company explained that figure by saying deductions from their earnings and Social Security disability payments covered the cost of their care and lodging.

But Canino said Henry’s muddled bookkeeping suggested that the same expense charge would be deducted twice, once from wages and again from Social Security payments. Moreover, the EEOC said Henry’s never applied for medical care or other services for which the 32 were eligible.

The issue came to light in 2009 after the Des Moines Register exposed conditions at the men’s bunkhouse, a dilapidated former schoolhouse furnished by the town of Atalisa, Iowa.

Kyle Gorsh, a state fire inspector at the time, told Canino it was the worst fire hazard he had seen in a career that included 3,000 inspections. Gorsh closed the bunkhouse down the same day, Canino said.

Operating as Hill Country Foods, Henry’s continued a cattle and hay operation for several years, the EEOC attorney said. The company founder, Thurman Johnson, died in 2008. Meanwhile, many of the 32 former workers stayed in Iowa while Long returned to Texas, Canino said.

The EEOC attorney is now faced with the task of unearthing all of the company’s assets in Goldthwaite, about 140 miles southwest of Fort Worth, where it owns 1,055 acres which along with several buildings are appraised at about $4 million. Canino also said he will determine if there had been any untimely transfers of property or cash that could be used toward the jury award.

There is no working number for the company and no one answered calls at the office of Henry’s attorney.

This article includes material from The Associated Press and the Des Moines Register

Barry Shlachter, 817-390-7718

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