World News

Thursday 31 July 2014

Workers awarded damages for abuse

Published 02/05/2013|04:51

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The payout was the largest in the 48-year history of the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission

A US company must pay 32 mentally disabled workers 240 million dollars (£154 million) in damages for what lawyers described as decades of abuse.

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The round-the-clock abuse on and off the job included being denied bathroom breaks and being kicked in the groin, and an expert witness said they had been "virtually enslaved".

The award handed out on Wednesday by a federal jury was the largest in the 48-year history of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which filed the lawsuit against Henry's Turkey Service. The jury awarded the former workers 7.5 million dollars (£4.8 million) in damages each. but the defunct company is unlikely to be able to pay that amount.

Henry's started employing men in the 1960s who had been released from Texas mental institutions. It ran the rural hostel where the men lived while working at an Iowa turkey plant, removing the innards of the slaughtered birds.

Officials closed the house in 2009 due to unsafe conditions including rodents and fire hazards. According to social workers who treated the men, most of them in their 50s and 60s, after the home was closed, the men said they had been subjected to abuse by their Henry's supervisors.

They said they had been forced to work through illness and injuries, denied bathroom breaks, locked in their rooms, kicked in the groin and, in one case, handcuffed to a bed. Sue Gant, a developmental psychologist and expert on the care of people with intellectual disabilities, interviewed the men at length and concluded they had been "virtually enslaved".

She said rain entered their bedrooms through broken windows and made their beds wet. Supervisors forced them to walk in circles carrying heavy weights as punishment, and picked on a man who had a brace on his leg, often pushing him down.

State officials told the court the abuse was uncovered in 2009, when they received a tip from a sister of one of the men. They found many of the men in need of immediate medical care, including one who had severe dental problems and another whose hands were infected from constant contact with turkey blood.

Prosecutors declined to bring criminal charges against those responsible for the abuse. The company's president, Kenneth Henry, told the Quad-City Times after the trial that he planned to appeal, calling some of the evidence "terribly exaggerated". During the trial, Henry's officials argued that their arrangement had benefited the men and said the company had received praise early on for giving them opportunities.

The new ruling is in addition to 1.3 million dollars £835,000) in back wages that a judge awarded the men last year. They had been working at the plant under Henry's oversight since the 1970s but never received a pay rise from the 65 dollars (£42) per month that Henry's gave them after deducting what it said were the costs of room and board.

Press Association

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