Iowa Public Television


Texas Firm That Housed Disabled Faces Iowa Fines

posted on May 29, 2009

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — A Texas labor contractor that employed and cared for dozens of mentally disabled men who worked at an eastern Iowa meatpacker faces $900,000 in state fines for alleged labor-law violations.

Iowa Workforce Development spokeswoman Kerry Koonce said Friday the fine against Hill Country Farms of Goldthwaite, Texas, is the largest solely related to wages issued by the agency, and the second-largest overall.

The Texas company's Iowa subsidiary, Henry's Turkey Service, kept detailed payment records, which Koonce said Iowa Workforce Development investigators have been examining since the men were found in a rundown house in Atalissa in February.

The agency investigated the 2007 and 2008 payroll and charged the company with three violations per pay period for each of the 30 workers employed during that time. The state charged $100 per violation.

The fine is second only to the $1.1 million assessed against Agriprocessors, Inc., the Postville kosher slaughterhouse that is facing a host of wage, child labor and safety violations. Federal charges also were filed against managers of the plant following a 2008 immigration raid that led to the arrest of 389 workers.

Henry's Turkey Service leased a city-owned house for the men in Atalissa and arranged for them to work at a meatpacker in nearby West Liberty.

In response to a tip, state investigators swooped down on the boarded-up house in February and removed 21 mentally disabled men who were living there. The state fire marshall ordered the house closed.

The Des Moines Register first reported the Workforce Development fines in a copyright story Friday.

The agency sent the letter announcing the fine to Hill Country Farms on May 22. Koonce said the West Liberty meatpacker, West Liberty Foods, will probably not face charges.

"It appears they paid more than minimum wage," Koonce said. "It's what Henry's paid its employees that's the issue."

Koonce said West Liberty Foods would pay Henry's in a lump sum for the worker's wages, from which Henry's then allegedly deducted the costs for the men's housing, food and care.

Koonce said the company has 30 days to respond to the charges. She said the fact that the company is based in Texas doesn't affect the charges, and that Iowa Workforce Development is not coordinating with any Texas labor agencies.

A woman who answered the phone Friday at Hill Country Farms in Goldthwaite said owners Jane Ann Johnson and Kenneth Henry, as well as corporate secretary Robert Berry, would not return until Monday and declined to answer further questions.

Goldthwaite is about 85 miles northwest of Austin, Texas.

An attorney for Hill Country Farms told the Register that the company intends to challenge the state's findings. The attorney, David Scieszinski of Wilton, Iowa, did not immediately return calls from The Associated Press on Friday.

Some of the 21 men removed from the Atalissa home are now living with relatives, but at least 18 remain in care centers in the Waterloo area.

A sister of one of the disabled workers said in February her brother had $80 in the bank after working for Henry's Turkey Service for 30 years. Payroll records obtained by the Register 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.

The Atalissa case prompted Gov. Chet Culver to establish a task force to recommend changes in how the state regulates centers that house dependent adults. The Legislature approved and Culver last week signed measures setting new standards for boarding centers and increasing the state's ability to inspect and enforce those standards.

Tags: disabilities Iowa meat money news Texas