“The ‘Boys’ in the Bunkhouse”

Photo of the New York Times building facade
New York Times Atalissa Story

The New York Times Sunday edition prominently featured the story of 32 men with disabilities, who were abused for more than 30 years at Henry’s Turkey Service in Atalissa, Iowa.

They were paid as low as $65 a month for years, while the farm’s owners collected their social security checks and exploited a provision in the Fair Labor Standards Act that lets certain qualified employers pay subminimum wages to employees with disabilities.

They were subjected to numerous labor and safety violations and frequently abused and even handcuffed.

“It’s as close to involuntary servitude as I’ve ever seen,” Sen. Tom Harkin said.

The New York Times feature provides the first comprehensive attempt to tell the stories of these workers, and their attempts to reintegrate into society. It also describes how Henry’s Turkey Farms was able to hide its actions for decades, even from friends of the owners who frequently visited the farm.

“The turkey plant case has really haunted all of us,” Curt Decker, the executive director of the National Disability Rights Network, told the New York Times. “This is what happens when we don’t pay attention.”

After the workers were freed, and the state declined to bring criminal charges, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission brought a lawsuit against Henry’s Turkeys Farm, resulting in a jury verdict for $240 million. The verdict was later slashed to $1.6 million, the maximum allowed under the statute.

The case has served as a catalyst for a broader movement to end the subminimum wage exception in the Fair Labor Standards Act. Many advocates believe the case helped convince President Obama to close the exception for federal contractors in an Executive Order last month.

“Much as Willowbrook challenged us all to re-examine our assumptions and look more deeply into residential institutions, Henry’s Turkey Service has challenged us to look more closely at employment institutions,” Eve Hill, a deputy assistant attorney general in the Civil Rights Division, told the New York Times.

Disability Rights Washington, publisher of disAbility Rights Galaxy, is a member of the National Disability Rights Network, NDRN.