Minimum wage laws should cover all disabled workers

The Des Moines Register’s Clark Kauffman wrote a must-read piece for today’s paper about a bunkhouse for mentally disabled men at the Johnson & Johnson Egg Farm near Goldthwaite, Texas. The bunkhouse is

the last run by the same Texas family who controlled Henry’s Turkey Service and the Atalissa, Ia., bunkhouse from which dozens of mentally retarded turkey plant workers were evacuated by the fire marshal in February.

Click here for the full archive of Des Moines Register stories about Henry’s Turkey Service and its facility in Iowa. The exploitation of workers there over many years is the subject of numerous current investigations. The horrific story had political fallout as well. Iowa Senate Republicans rejected Gene Gessow’s nomination to head the Department of Human Services, saying that as acting head of the department, Gessow “failed to be forthright about the Atalissa bunkhouse situation during important legislative oversight committee hearings.”

I’ve highlighted a few parts of Kauffman’s latest report after the jump, but I encourage you to click over and read the whole piece. Then ask yourself why any companies are allowed to pay the mentally disabled less than minimum wage. If a person is competent to do work a corporation needs done, that person deserves the same pay a person with no disabilities would receive.

Kauffman reports that the mysterious death of one man at the Texas bunkhouse led to a state investigation that revealed mistreatment of residents:

Nine years ago, [owner] Herman Johnson agreed to pay $40,000 to the state of Texas to settle allegations that he had abused and exploited the mentally retarded men who lived in the care facility. Workers there told inspectors that Johnson forced the six men to perform “hard physical labor” on his egg farm. At the time, all of the residents were severely retarded; their average age was 60. […]

One key provision of the settlement was that Yvonne Bates, an expert in mental health services, would make periodic, unannounced visits to the bunkhouse to make sure the men were being properly cared for. She would then give the attorney general written reports of her findings.

But Bates says the attorney general never told her of that requirement and she never inspected the facility.

“I never went out there,” she said last week. “And I certainly don’t recall ever writing any reports.”

Her reports were supposed to go to Paul Carmona, then the head of the attorney general’s office on elder affairs. Carmona declined to talk last week. “I can’t tell you anything,” he said.

According to Kauffman, the men living at the Texas bunkhouse now work at a “sheltered workshop,” earning less than the minimum wage for putting nuts and bolts into plastic bags.

Bridgette Holmes, the program director at the workshop, says it’s hard to say how much the men average in pay because their wages are based on the number of bags they assemble. “But I don’t think their pay would ever be more than $300 per month,” she said.

Even $300 a month is far below what any American should be paid for working five days a week, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the real paychecks are much lower than that. Court documents from the investigation nine years ago show that the man who died was earning between $11 and $76 per month and accrued a life savings of $848.61 during his time in the Texas bunkhouse.

I don’t see any reason to grant a company an exemption from the Fair Labor Standards Act just because its employees are mentally disabled.

Final note: for unintentional comedy, it doesn’t get much better than this:

With 11 state and federal agencies still investigating Henry’s and the Atalissa bunkhouse operation, company officials have declined to talk to the Register. But one of the Texas men who helped launch Henry’s Turkey Service in the late 1960s says Thurman Johnson, who died in February 2008, never mistreated his disabled workers.

“Didn’t nobody love the retarded more than Thurman,” says Robert Womack of Goldthwaite. “He could be a horse’s ass, but he loved them boys.”

Sure he did–he loved profiting from their work while paying them a few bucks a week.  

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