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Labor officials admit Atalissa shortcomings

Labor officials admit Atalissa shortcomings

By PHILIP BRASHER Ӣ pbrasher@dmreg Ӣ March 10, 2009

Washington, D.C. — Companies such as Henry's Turkey Service of Atalissa are seldom checked by federal inspectors, and the firms face few penalties even if they're caught exploiting disabled workers, a U.S. Senate committee was told Monday.

The U.S. Department of Labor enforces the nation's wage-and-hour laws but has too few investigators and rarely imposes sanctions against known violators, current and former department officials told the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

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Henry's Turkey Service is under state and federal criminal investigation for the alleged exploitation of dozens of mentally retarded men who worked at a meat-processing plant near Atalissa. Company officials have denied any wrongdoing.

For 34 years, Henry's acted as the men's landlord, caretaker and employer in Iowa. The company paid some of the men as little as 44 cents an hour, but also provided room, board and care in a 106-year-old bunkhouse that was closed last month by order of the state fire marshal. The closure came after The Des Moines Register inquired whether the facility was operating as an unlicensed care center.

Monday's committee hearing was led by Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Ia., who characterized the Atalissa case as a "wake-up call" with regard to workplace exploitation of the disabled.

"You can't imagine how — I don't think embarrassing is the right word — but just how badly I feel that this has taken place in my own state," Harkin said. "Under my own nose. I didn't even know about it."

Harkin asked John Mc-Keon, deputy administrator of the Department of Labor's wage-and-hour division, how the Atalissa operation went undiscovered for so long.

"How could it be that for going on 30 years they had this situation like this bunkhouse here — this abandoned school where these people lived — and no one from DOL would ever check?" Harkin asked. "How could that just go on year after year after year? Wouldn't something pop up someplace?"

McKeon said there probably are a lot of employers who are authorized to pay less than the minimum wage but who "have never seen a wage-and-hour investigator." He said the Department of Labor has half the number of wage-and-hour investigators it had in the 1970s.

Harkin is chairman of the Senate appropriations subcommittee that crafts the Department of Labor's annual budgets.

Regarding the Atalissa case, Harkin asked: "Are there more that we don't know about out there like this? I don't know."

"I don't know either, sir," McKeon replied.

Six years ago, the Department of Labor investigated Henry's payroll practices and concluded the com-pany owed 43 of its mentally retarded workers a total of $20,340 in unpaid wages. The department's lead investigator in the case was Ronald Mease, who has declined to comment on the matter.

James Leonard, a former attorney for the Department of Labor, told the committee that violators are rarely asked to pay anything other than the wages owed to employees. They aren't asked to pay interest, fines or damages, he said.

"I hate to put it this way," he told the committee, "but there's almost a financial incentive to take a chance that you won't be caught — because even if you are caught, you'll only have to pay back wages."

Curt Decker of the National Disabilities Rights Network told Harkin the federal government needs to strengthen its monitoring of employers who are authorized by the Department of Labor to pay less than the minimum wage.

"The lack of oversight enabled Henry's Turkey Service to exploit the labor of individuals with disabilities in order to increase the profit of the business," he said. "This is outrageous and cannot be continued."

Harkin said he was considering legislation that would tighten the rules, and possibly eliminate the minimum-wage exemption, for nonprofit organizations and for-profit companies that employ the disabled.

"We need to strengthen the enforcement activities of the Department of Labor," Harkin said. "I think we also need to strengthen the penalty system so that people do know that if they get caught, they're going to get severely fined. ... It's my intent to have some legislation soon in draft form that would not only get at the Atalissa problem, but cover the nonprofits that are out there."