The ‘Boys’ in the Bunkhouse

Dan Barry, The ‘Boys’ in the Bunkhouse. The New York Times, 9 March 2014. “Toil, abuse and endurance in the heartland…. For decades [1974-2009], dozens of men with intellectual disabilities belonged to a close-knit Iowa community. They lived in an old schoolhouse, worked in a turkey plant, and frequented the local mini-mart. But [few] knew just what these men endured.”

Excerpt from story:

Every morning before dawn, they were sent to eviscerate turkeys at a processing plant, in return for food, lodging, the occasional diversion and $65 a month. For more than 30 years.Their supervisors never received specialized training; never tapped into Iowa’s social service system; never gave the men the choices in life granted by decades of advancement in disability civil rights. Increasingly neglected and abused, the men remained in heartland servitude for most of their adult lives.

This Dickensian story — told here through court records, internal documents and extensive first-time interviews with several of the men — is little known beyond Iowa. But five years after their rescue, it continues to resound in halls of power. Last year the case led to the largest jury verdict in the history of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission: $240 million in damages — an award later drastically reduced, yet still regarded as a watershed moment for disability rights in the workplace. In both direct and subtle ways, it has also influenced government initiatives, advocates say, including President Obama’s recent executive order to increase the minimum wage for certain workers.

Overall, the Atalissa case has been a catalyst for change, according to Senator Tom Harkin, Democrat of Iowa, a longtime champion of people with disabilities, who still struggles with what these vulnerable men endured in his home state.

History of the coverage of this story:

Alexandra Fenwick, Darts and Laurels. Columbia Journalism Review. 25 March 2010.

In 1979, Des Moines Register reporters Mike McGraw and Margaret Engel discovered sixty mentally disabled men eviscerating turkeys at an Iowa meat plant for less than $70 a month. The workers were Texas natives who had aged out of state care and been sent to the meat plant to work for subminimum wages by a Texas labor broker called Henry’s Turkey Service. They were housed in an old schoolhouse that was owned by the town of Atalissa and operated by Henry’s, which deducted room and board from the men’s meager paychecks….
The whole situation raised “thorny questions about how handicapped persons should be paid for their work,” according to the article that McGraw and Engel wrote (PDF). It ran on the front page of the Sunday Register and spurred an investigation by the U.S. Department of Labor….
Shortly after their story was published, McGraw returned to his old paper, The Kansas City Star, where he still works today, and Engel moved to a job at the Register’s Washington, D.C., bureau. They had exposed an injustice and an investigation was under way—the system had worked. The Atalissa story soon fell off their respective radars. “We had reason to believe something would happen,” McGraw says now.

But nothing did. The investigation stalled and eventually was dropped, and with both McGraw and Engel gone, no one at the paper followed up.

Thirty years later the Atalissa bunkhouse story resurfaced at the Register. In February 2009, reporter Clark Kauffman received a call from the sister of a Henry’s Turkey Service employee who had started working at the Atalissa plant in 1979. She was concerned that her brother was being exploited; after three decades working for Henry’s, he had amassed a life savings of just $80. As Kauffman began digging, he unearthed the Register’s original story from the clip file. It turned out that twenty-one of the original sixty men were still living in the same bunkhouse, still plucking turkey feathers and pulling guts at the same slaughterhouse. Their 40-cents-an-hour wage had not changed.

This time the story did not fall through the cracks. Within days of Kauffman’s first calls to state officials, the century-old bunkhouse was shut down by the state fire marshal for unsafe conditions. Kauffman wrote dozens of follow-up stories over the course of nearly a year….

The fact that the tragedy of Atalissa was allowed to continue for thirty years after it was exposed is an indictment not just of government regulators but also of the media’s propensity to move relentlessly on to the next story, to fire a single bullet at massive, complex problems and consider the job done….