Responding to allegations that Henry’s Turkey (an Iowa-based subsidiary of Hill County Farms) subjected a class of intellectually disabled workers to verbal abuse and deprivation of rights, the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) brought suit for discrimination against the turkey processor in 2011 (read the complaint here). The EEOC lawsuit was brought under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which prohibits discrimination against disabled employees in wages and workplace conditions, and bars disability-based harassment.
This case has now yielded a $240 million jury verdict, the largest in EEOC’s history according to the agency. The jury found that Henry’s Turkey had subjected the 32 plaintiffs to severe abuse and discrimination, and awarded the former employees, who earned a meager $65 per month working at Henry’s, $5.5 million each in compensatory damages and $2 million each in punitive damages.
The abuse was shocking in its cruelty. During the trial, the EEOC offered evidence that the employer (including owners and supervisors) directed verbal abuse at the workers, regularly referring to them as “retarded,” “dumb ass” and “stupid.” The company also failed to provide workers with the medical care that was needed in the course of the high-risk work and paid them well under the minimum wage. In the face of such serious allegations, Hill County Farms nonetheless opted to take the case to trial, refusing to settle through the ADA’s mandatory conciliation process.
The significance of this historic jury award is eloquently summed up by an EEOC press release: “The verdict sends an important message that the conduct that occurred here is intolerable in this nation, and hopefully will help to restore dignity and acknowledge the humanity of the workers who were mistreated for so many years.”