Texas Firm Disputes Treatment of Disabled Workers in Iowa

June 9, 2009

The co-owner of a Texas business that hired out dozens of mentally disabled workers to work in turkey processing plants in Iowa says the firm didn’t violate labor laws.

Iowa state investigators removed 21 of the workers from a boarded-up house in February and the Iowa Workforce Development imposed $900,000 in fines against Henry’s Turkey Service’s parent, Hill Country Farms, for improper payroll deductions and other alleged labor-law violations.

Kenneth Henry told The Dallas Morning News in his first interview since the fines were levied that Henry’s Turkey legally deducted the cost of the men’s care from their paychecks. He said the men needed round-the-clock care.

“These boys cannot take care of themselves,” the 68-year-old Henry said in the story published June 7. “The constant care is the part that nobody wants to talk about.”

Henry also rejected criticism of the program as exploiting the disabled men.

“They don’t understand the program. The boys take pride in their work. They don’t think they’re being exploited,” Henry said.

The young men came from institutions for the mentally disabled to Thurman Johnson’s ranch in Goldthwaite, about 85 miles northwest of Austin, in the late 1960s.

He taught them how to raise turkeys and cows and perform other farm chores, then put them to work. Later, he and Henry, his business partner, hired out the men as laborers at turkey processing plants in Iowa and other states.

Using a federal law that encouraged employers to hire people with disabilities, Johnson, who died in early 2008, was allowed to pay the men less than minimum wage and deduct a “reasonable cost” for room, board and care from their pay.

The Iowa Workforce Development investigated the company’s 2007 and 2008 payroll and charged them three violations per pay period for each of the 30 workers employed during that time at a cost of $100 per violation. Agency spokeswoman Kerry Koonce said last month that was the largest fine issued by the agency solely related to wages.

The Iowa bunkhouse where the men lived had cockroaches, boarded-up windows and exits, and a faulty boiler that forced them to use space heaters during the winter.

Henry and Jane Anne Johnson began shutting down the business after Thurman Johnson died and had been bringing workers back to Texas to live in nursing and retirement homes.

Henry said local caretakers let the bunkhouse “run down.”

The U.S. Justice Department is investigating whether the men’s civil rights were violated and the U.S. Labor Department wants to know if the men were underpaid and if they received overtime pay. The U.S. Social Security Administration is also examining company records to see how it handled federal assistance payments to its disabled workers.

Payroll records and company documents seized by the investigators would clear his business, Henry said.

“People think that we got rich out of this deal, but we haven’t,” he told the newspaper.

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