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Texas Company Fined For Underpaying Disabled Workers

Thu, 04/28/2011 - 8:48am
Melanie S. Welte, Associated Press

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — A federal judge ordered a Texas-based company accused of abusing and underpaying several mentally disabled men at a turkey plant in Iowa to pay $1.76 million to the former workers, the U.S. Labor Department said Wednesday.

The partial summary judgment was issued in the department's lawsuit against Hill Country Farms, of Goldthwaite, Texas, doing business as Henry's Turkey Service. Henry's provided the workers to West Liberty Foods in Muscatine County as part of a contract with the Iowa plant.

The Labor Department said in statement that the judgment requires Hill Country Farms and its president, Kenneth Henry, to pay more than $1.76 million in back wages and damages for violating the minimum wage and overtime provisions of the federal Fair Labor Standards Act.

The judgment, by U.S. District Judge Harold Vietor, concluded the defendants failed to properly pay 31 workers.

"Henry's Turkey Service exploited vulnerable employees who have a right to, and deserve, every penny they earned," Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis said in a statement.

An attorney for Henry's, David Scieszinski of Wilton, Iowa, declined to comment on the judgment.

The men, most of them in their 50s and 60s, lived in a dilapidated bunkhouse in Atalissa with boarded-up windows and that relied only on space heaters. Most of the men were from Texas but had lived in Iowa for 20 years or more while working at West Liberty Foods.

The bunkhouse was closed by the state fire marshal in February 2009.

The Iowa Department of Human Services has said most of the men stayed in Iowa, where they were helped to find permanent housing and jobs. Others returned to Texas.

The Labor Department said in court documents that Henry's charges for room and board and care increased each year, while the workers' cash wages never varied.

"It was $65 a month, month after month, year after year," according to documents. "Hill Country Farms chose to pay this amount because it was the maximum cash wage a worker could receive that would not reduce the amount of his Social Security benefits. Even when company time sheets reflected that the workers put in over 40 hours a week, the stated wage on the time sheet always remained the same."

According to court documents, the labor department investigated Hill Country farms two times prior to the investigation that led the lawsuit on labor violations, which was filed last November. A trial in the case was scheduled for May.

In the judgment, Vietor ordered the defendants to pay nearly $881,000 in back wages, and an equal amount in damages, for a total of $1.76 million.

A bench trial is scheduled for May 16 to decide issues not covered by the judgment.

Labor department spokesman Rich Kulczewski said those issues involve pay for additional workers who worked for Henry's to maintain the bunkhouse where the men lived.

Henry's Turkey Services faces a separate lawsuit filed April 6 by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The federal agency claims in the lawsuit, filed in U.S. District in Davenport, that the company abused and discriminated against the 31 disabled men who worked at the West Liberty Foods plant. The EEOC's lawsuit alleges the abuse and harassment spanned more than 20 years.

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