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State inspectors probe plant that employed mentally disabled

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

DES MOINES - State inspectors have shut down a building that housed mentally disabled men brought from Texas to work in a West Liberty turkey processing plant.

The Des Moines Register reported in a copyrighted story on Sunday that the state investigation focuses on Henry's Turkey Service, the Texas-based company that has employed dozens of mentally disabled men to work in the meat-processing plant since the 1970s.

The Register reports that the state fire marshal's office on Saturday shut down the building that housed the 21 men, called "the bunkhouse," a 106-year-old building in Atalissa. The men were moved to a hotel for the night.

"My God, this is an embarrassment to the state of Iowa," said Sylvia Piper of Iowa Protection and Advocacy, a federally funded group that oversees services for the disabled. "This should not be happening in our state."

In a statement released Sunday night, Gov. Chet Culver called the situation "appalling" and the conditions "deplorable," and said he is directing Iowa Workforce Development, the state labor agency, to investigate possible labor law violations.

In addition, Culver said the Department of Elder Affairs will help with guardian issues and the Department of Human Services, along with the Attorney General's office, will assess the men's needs and "assure that their rights are fully protected."

Culver said the bunkhouse was shut down late Saturday night by the state fire marshal's office due to "unsafe conditions," including boarded-up windows and a heating system that doesn't work.

Most of the 21 men who were ordered from the building on Saturday are in their 50s and 60s. Officials from the U.S. Department of Justice and FBI agents were on the scene Saturday night.

The plant acted as the men's employer, landlord and caregiver. For instance, Keith Brown, 57, has lived at the bunkhouse since 1979. Payroll records obtained by the Register show that in January, Henry's Turkey Service took $487 from his earnings to pay for his room and board, then deducted another $572 for "kind care."

Keith Brown's sister Sherri Brown said her brother has $80 in the bank after working for Henry's for 30 years. The payroll records also show the men were left with as little as $65 per month in salary

A company, with the permission of the U.S. Department of Labor, can pay less than the minimum wage to disabled workers who would otherwise not be employable.

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