This week, the U.S. Department of Labor asked a federal judge to require a Texas company to pay a group of mentally disabled men thousands of dollars in back wages for the time they spent working at a turkey processing plant in West Liberty. The 21 men, ranging in age from 39 to 70, were relocated to Waterloo from Atalissa after it was discovered they were living in substandard housing.
Six of the men were eventually reunited with family and moved out of state. The 15 other men remain at Waterloo’s Exception Persons Incorporated. EPI Executive Director Chris Sparks says he was a bit surprised about how willing the men were to leave the only home they’d known for up to 20 years.
“As they came to Waterloo, as they got acclimated into their new surroundings, they enjoyed it, they appreciated it and one of their concerns was I don’t want to go back,” Sparks said. The men had been employed by Henry’s Turkey Service out of Texas. Sparks admits it took a good deal of time for them to feel secure at their new home in Waterloo.
“A number of them did experience some sleeping difficulties,” Sparks said. “They experienced some trauma related to the concern that they were going to have to go back and I know that because they shared that concern with me personally.” Sparks says because the men had worked in the same place for so many years, EPI staff asked the men if they would be interested in part-time work in Waterloo or within the EPI facility.
“A couple of the guys actually said to me, ‘I am interested in working, but not with any turkeys,'” Sparks said. “And of course, they’re not going to be working in that kind of endeavor or activity.” In Atalissa, the men lived in a bunkhouse that was deemed a fire hazard because of overloaded electrical circuits and space heaters which ran constantly as the only heat in the facility. Iowa Workforce Development officials say Henry’s Turkey Service used a federal law that allows companies to pay workers with diminished mental capacity less than minimum wage.
The law is designed to encourage businesses to employ people who would not otherwise find work. The U.S. Labor Department says the men were paid as little as $65 a month. The agency is asking the company to pay the men back wages, plus interest, for what they should have been earning. The results of a criminal investigation have been turned over to Muscatine County authorities.