Jury Award Demonstrates Why Disabled Workers in New Jersey and Nationwide Must be Defended Against Unlawful Discrimination
On May 1st, a federal jury in Iowa awarded $240 million to 32 mentally-disabled workers who were allegedly abused and controlled by their now-defunct employer. According to the nation's Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the disabled workers were paid 41 cents per hour, housed in unsanitary conditions, denied basic medical care, and physically and verbally abused by individuals who were charged with overseeing their care for years. The EEOC sued their employer, Henry's Turkey Service, on behalf of the workers after the State of Iowa closed the facility in 2009. The company was allegedly investigated and closed in Iowa after state officials received a complaint from one of the worker's family members.
According to Sue Gant, a Developmental Psychologist who purportedly testified on behalf of the workers, the disabled individuals were "virtually enslaved" by the company. The Iowa jury allegedly found that Henry's Turkey Service violated the workers' civil rights and imposed discriminatory conditions of employment in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The jury's award of $7.5 million per worker was reportedly the largest handed down in the 48-year history of the EEOC. Gant stated she believes the jury award was so large due to the level of discrimination suffered by the workers.
President of Henry's Turkey Service, Kenneth Henry, stated the allegations were exaggerated and said the company has plans to appeal. Although it is unlikely the now-closed Texas-based company has the financial means to pay the award, federal officials have reportedly stated they will work to recover as much as they can for the disabled workers. In 2012, Henry's Turkey Service was also ordered to pay the workers $1.3 million in back wages.
Although the workers in this case suffered reprehensible discrimination, not all employment discrimination is immediately obvious. Sadly, many employers choose to unlawfully discriminate against employees who suffer from a disability due to biased thinking. If a disability does not physically prevent a worker from performing his or her essential job duties, an employer has no legal basis to discriminate based on that disability.
Workers in New York and New Jersey are protected from disability discrimination no matter the severity of their disability. In addition to more severe limitations such as blindness or paralysis, depression, anxiety, and learning disabilities are protected as well. If you believe you suffered employment discrimination as a result of your disability, you should contact a quality employment law attorney.