Court Awards Disabled Turkey Plant Workers $1.7 Million in Back Pay
A federal court in Iowa has determined that 31 disabled men who worked at a
turkey-processing plant were owed $1.7 million in back wages and liquidated
damages by employers who compensated them at a rate of about $.41 per
hour for years. Solis v. Hill Country Farms, Inc., No. 09-00162 (S.D.
Iowa, Davenport Div., decided April 21, 2011). The recovery will compensate
the workers for a three-year period. The two-year statute of limitations was
extended for the defendants’ knowing and reckless disregard of federal
minimum wage and overtime requirements because the Wage and Hour
Division had previously investigated them for the same violations.
The employees lived in a bunkhouse provided by the defendants, and their
room and board expenses were deducted from their Social Security (SS)
or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits. Those expenses, which
were increased over time, were also deducted from their pay; their take
home of $65 per month never changed over the more than 20 years they
were employed at the turkey plant. This was the maximum cash wage they
could receive and continue to remain eligible for SS and SSI benefits. The
only defense proffered was that the disabled men were not the defendants’
employees, but the court concluded that, as a matter of economic reality, the
defendants, acting as a labor broker, “asserted control as their employer.”
According to a news source, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has also sued the employer and its owner under the Americans with Disabilities Act, alleging malice or reckless indifference for major violations of the Act. The EEOC reportedly claims that the men were physically abused by their caretakers; their complaints of injury were ignored; they were subjected to “derogatory and humiliating name-calling based on their disability”; they were confined to their rooms from time to time in the bunkhouse, an old school house with boarded-up windows, warmed with space heaters; and they were denied restroom breaks and medical attention. State labor officials previously assessed $1.1 million in penalties against the defendants for violations of state labor laws and the workers’ “depraved” exploitation. See Courthouse News Service, May 2, 2011.