Testimony at the Henry’s Turkey Service federal trial Wednesday offered a description of dark, filthy and violent living conditions experienced by 32 disabled workers over two years at a rural Iowa bunkhouse.
Natalie Neel-McGlaughlin investigated the scene for the Iowa Department of Human Services in February 2009 and interviewed the workers.
The bunkhouse in the Muscatine County farming community of Atalissa was rodent-infested and the workers, all at various levels of intellectual disability, were not provided even basic hygiene needs by the company's supervisors, she testified.
“These were very deplorable living conditions,” she said as the company’s president, Kenneth Henry, sat silently during the testimony in U.S. District Court in Davenport.
Henry’s supplied the 32 men as contract workers to West Liberty Foods in West Liberty, Iowa. By February 2009, the men at the bunkhouse were going to be returned to Texas, where the company is headquartered, against their will before Iowa DHS inspectors acting on a tip found them and delivered them to a safe environment, Neel-McGlaughlin said.
According to her testimony:
Neel-McGlaughlin was among the first on scene of the rundown former converted schoolhouse on Feb. 6, 2009. She found many windows boarded up, a bedroom ceiling that was collapsing and leaking being held up with duct tape, windowsills covered with insects, and dry food covered with mouse droppings.
She heard cockroaches in the walls and smelled a strong odor of urine and mold throughout. She found a urine-stained mattress and mold covering the walls.
Twenty-one men were still living there at the time. The conditions posed an “imminent danger to the men that could lead to death.”
Neel-McGlaughlin interviewed the men. She discovered that many of them were humiliated and assaulted by company supervisors on a routine basis.
Some of the workers told her of being struck numerous times in the groin as they walked around a pole in the bunkhouse’s garage. One walked with leg braces was pushed around.
Some were made to walk around the gym area of the bunkhouse carrying weights or other heavy items if they didn’t do their jobs well enough.
The violence carried over to the turkey processing plant in West Liberty. According to testimony, one worker was punched in the face and shoved against a wall at the plant.
Another complained of shortness of breath one day to a supervisor. He was told to work, and later that day passed out, having suffered a mild heart attack.
The man told her during an interview: “I just tried to do the best that I could,” Neel-McGlaughlin said.
When she first met one of the workers, he had a swollen knee. He apparently had been complaining of pain for two weeks and was told by a supervisor that he was “faking” the injury.
Neel-McGlaughlin demanded that that the Henry's representative provide urgent care. It was discovered that he had been walking on a broken knee for two weeks.
The company neglected the men’s health needs. One worker had a nicotine addiction and would rifle through the trash looking for cigarette butts to chew on. Instead of helping him, supervisors called him names.
“They were cussed at, yelled at, screamed at and berated on a daily basis,” Neel-McGlaughlin said.
Henry’s supervisors have never been criminally charged with assault in Iowa.
The 21 men were relocated to Exceptional Persons Inc. of Waterloo. The agency’s services director, Susan Seehase, testified that at least one of the men appeared malnourished and three suffered from diabetes that wasn’t being treated.
The men had been conditioned while working for Henry’s not to complain of pain, Seehase said.
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“You could see they were in pain,” she said. “They wouldn’t tell my staff.”
One ate very little during the first few days in Waterloo. “He said that if he didn’t work as hard, he couldn’t eat as much,” Seehase said.
Initially, the men were nervous about relocating, in part, for fear that Henry’s supervisors would come after them to further harm them, she said.
“They didn’t trust us at first that they were going to be safe,” Seehase said.
The conditions at work and at the bunkhouse had an adverse effect on the men both emotionally and psychologically, Seehase said.
They were used to being called “retard” and “idiots” by Henry’s supervisors, Neel-McGlaughlin testified.
They also were used to being referred to as “the boys,” even though several of the men were in their 40s and 50s.
David Scieszinski, Henry’s attorney, called the workers “boys” during his cross-examination of Seehase.
Seehase, Neel-McGlaughlin and the attorney for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which is suing Henry’s, referred to the workers as “men” and “gentlemen.”
Neel-McGlaughlin also referred to each worker by his name when recounting the experiences in the bunkhouse.