Archives April 2011

A Turkey Farm Lesson about Group Labor and Sub-Minimum Wage

Not only is sub-minimum wages for workers with disabilities unfair, one of the effects of such wages and using group labor of people with disabilities is the dehumanizing impact it creates on the workers by those around them. I believe this leads to a higher risk of abuse and exploitation.
In April, 2011, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed a lawsuit against Texas-based Hill Country Farms, alleging that the company subjected a group of 31 men with intellectual disabilities in Iowa  to severe abuse and discrimination for more than 21 years. The men, whose job was to eviscerate turkeys, were subjected to physical abuse and inhumane working and living conditions. The physical abuse including hitting and kicking the men and forcing them to carry heavy weights as punishment. They were also verbally abused and called ‘retarded’ and ‘dumbass.’ If this rings familiar to recent human rights violations at some institutions, you are right. Institutional life is not just about the size of the program, although larger programs tend to be more regimented; it’s also very much about the relationship between group residents and those around them.
The EEOC complaint alleges that that the owners and staffers of Henry’s Turkey denied the workers lawful wages, paying them only $65 a month for full-time work; restricted their freedom of movement; and forced them to live in deplorable and sub-standard living conditions. Documents were ‘contrived’ so that employees would be paid their monthly $65 regardless of hours worked.
This is clearly a case of incredible abuse and exploitation, and is shocking in its level for today’s world. How could such a thing happen? What hasn’t been widely reported is the history behind the development of this situation and some details of the residents living conditions in Iowa. The original owner of the company, T.H. Johnson, was a rancher in Texas. He started a turkey operation there and began using graduating students of the Abilene State School, which was then an institution for students with disabilities, as low-cost laborers in the sixties. In 1968, he was even award “National Employer of the Year” by the “National Association of Retarded Children.” In the early seventies, the company made an agreement with a turkey plant in Iowa to provide labor. A bunkhouse was used as the resident for the first 15 laborers with disabilities brought to Iowa from Texas. This number fluctuated between 20 and 60, but soon settled at about 30 residents with intellectual disabilities. It wasn’t until a 2009 inspection of the residents’ bunkhouse when conditions came to light. The inspection cited the main fire alarm disabled, fire exits blocked or padlocked, holes in the ceiling, bug infestations, mold – generally deplorable conditions. 
The idea of workers with disabilities as low-cost laborers stems from group employment models and the allowance of sub-minimum wage as applied to a group of people – those with disabilities. Certainly exploitation and abuse can happen anywhere, but something of this magnitude is rare. Group labor approaches and the ability to manipulate wages based on “productivity” simply invites an atmosphere where people can be taken advantage of in ways we have not seen in the US in fifty plus years. There is no reason to allow sub-minimum wages anymore; or group models of employment to solve high unemployment of a particular minority group. 
Let’s end the conditions that led to a run-down bunkhouse for workers who earn a $65 monthly wage for full time work. Now. 

Thoughts on Employment First: Don’t Water it Down!

Employment First refers to a relatively new movement to change public policy for individuals with disabilities who receive publicly funded day services. Employment First begins as an effort to change the expectations people have about the ability of people with disabilities to work – in policy, in practice, and in person. It refers to having employment be the primary expected goal for working-age adults with disabilities in government-funded day services, and for those services to support that realization of that goal.

Employment First presents a great opportunity, but there is a real concern that new employment initiatives, while well-intentioned, will be developed incompletely and ultimately again will do little to change a largely segregated and entrenched vocational system. That would be a tragedy.

We must avoid having Employment First go through a process of misunderstood implementation, leading to an all-too familiar conclusion about new innovations that are perceived as being attempted and falling short, or “We tried that and it didn’t work…”

TRN has released a new manual on this topic that I authored. Most likely the most challenging point of this manual on Employment First is its position to publicly acknowledge that the segregated nature of much of the disability vocational training system to date has not only failed to produce good job outcomes for people with disabilities, but also has acted at times as an obstacle to people with disabilities leading fulfilling lives. Facility-based sheltered work has been a barrier by adding stigma to its workers, paying predominantly sub-minimum wages, and wasting time and resources that could be spent in actual employment. In addition, service components of much of disability job training, such as intrusive behavior management, labeling, and other artifacts of the human services system, have created further barriers to job success.

Politically, many agencies, including national associations, have tried to focus on growing integrated services as a strategy for change. One noted, “We believe that the best strategy …is to focus on developing more jobs, as well as the programs, services, and supports that people with I/DD need … The employment and services marketplace will evolve accordingly and unwanted employment options will fade from the scene.” (Arc of the US, 2011) Unfortunately, twenty years of employment outcome data has shown that this has not proven sufficient. Segregated facilities are entrenched and growing larger in the numbers of people served every day.

We need to acknowledge that this must change. This begins by recognizing that the segregated, facility-based approach will not simply fade away. There needs to be agency commitments to immediately end new referrals to segregated models and, secondly, put in place strategies to downsize facility-based models over a reasonable time span. These need to be part of Employment First.