Meat Processing Plant Ordered To Pay Mentally Disabled Workers $240 Million For Decades Of Abuse

A badly stained mattress at the Henry's Turkey Services bunkhouse (Credit: Justin Hayworth/The Des Moines Register)

A federal jury ruled Wednesday afternoon that Henry’s Turkey Service of Goldwaithe, Texas, must pay 32 mentally disabled workers $240 million for years of abuse and neglect. The now-shuttered company’s violations of the American Disabilities Act range from physically abusing the men to packing them in unsanitary bunkhouses at night.

Over 40 years, hundreds of men were shipped from Texas to work in Henry’s Iowa plant for 41 cents an hour. They were housed in a century-old, cockroach-infested school building with a broken boiler, denied access to disability services, and battered with constant physical and verbal abuse by their so-called caretakers. The complaint details how injuries and requests for medical aid were ignored, restroom breaks were prohibited, while caretakers mocked the men as “retarded” “dumbass” and “stupid.”

Meanwhile, the state of Iowa and the U.S. Labor Department turned a blind eye to the labor camp’s myriad violations, as the Des Moines Register explains:

Evidence produced during the trial indicates bunkhouse supervisor Randy Neubauer had one of the bunkhouse residents handcuffed to his bed at night — an allegation Neubauer denied when testifying.

Also, an Iowa Department of Human Services social worker testified that evidence showed some of the men were punished for violating company rules by being taken to a garage next to the bunkhouse, where they were forced to walk around a pole while they were hit, kicked and screamed at by their caretakers.

Although federal officials have said Henry’s violated the state fire code, committed abuse and ran the bunkhouse as an unlicensed care facility, the state of Iowa never filed criminal charges in the case.
Henry’s decades-long practice of paying the men less than the minimum wage was well-known to the U.S. Department of Labor, which over 15 years repeatedly cited the company for wage violations but imposed no penalties.

Even Kenneth Henry, the owner of Henry’s Turkey Service, struck an employee, or one of the “boys,” as Henry called the mostly middle-aged men. Henry denied it in court, also claiming he had no knowledge of the appalling conditions in his labor camp.

After a Des Moines Register investigation helped shut down the plant in 2009, the company was ordered to pay millions in penalties to the workers, the U.S. Labor Department, and Iowa Workforce Development for wage violations. However, months later, Henry’s has not yet paid up. On top of these outstanding penalties, Henry’s will now have to pay for the abuses and neglect suffered by the workers.

The $240 million penalty was welcomed as a “powerful statement” by advocates and family members of the abused workers. Still, one expert witness wondered, “How do you put a value on decades of lost opportunity? You can’t recapture those years…These men were hidden away for decades, and for others’ personal gain.”