New criticism is being heaped on Henry’s Turkey Service of Atalissa which failed to get government permission to pay its disabled workers well under minimum wage. Twenty-one mentally-retarded men were evacuated from the eastern Iowa bunkhouse last month which the company rented. The century-old building was deemed an immediate fire hazard.

Some of the men had lived and worked in Atalissa for decades. Iowa Senator Tom Harkin says the company hadn’t followed proper channels on the wage issue in five years. Harkin says, "No question there’s been a breakdown in the U.S. Department of Labor’s oversight of the 14-C program which allows employers to pay persons with disabilities less than a minimum wage and of a related program that allows employers to dock these workers’ pay for room and board."

The men range in age from 39 into their 70s.  After an audit in 2003, Henry’s was forced to pay some $20,000 in back wages to dozens of the men, which Harkin says was hardly even a slap on the wrist.

"These men were docked as much as $40,000 every month to live in this ramshackle building for which the employer only paid $600 a month in rent for the whole thing," Harkin says.

Some of the workers were only being paid $65 a month. Harkin presided over a Senate committee hearing on the Atalissa issue earlier this week and says it’s clear, the Labor Department needs to do more inspections and needs more inspectors. Harkin says they’ll need to "beef up" the number of people working in the U.S. Labor Department as they can’t do it with only three people inspecting some 2,500 places statewide every year.

He says there should also be a requirement that employers inform workers about deductions from their checks for room and board and that the workers, families, guardians, social workers and the state should be notified. Also, he says the deductions should be approved by the worker, in writing, ahead of time.

"The exploitation of workers with intellectual disabilities at Henry’s Turkey Service plant in Atalissa was, to put it mildly, a rude wake-up call," Harkin says. "The fact that these vulnerable people could be abused for as long as three decades without meaningful oversight or intervention by federal, state or local authorities truly shocks the conscience."

He says there’s a responsibility now to fix laws and oversight that made the abuses possible at the state, federal and local level.