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Texas disability case may spur changes to federal wage laws

Many San Antonio residents heard the news this week that a former Texas company has been ordered to pay $240 million for violating the rights of intellectually disabled employees. Henry's Turkey Service was sued by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission several years ago for gross civil rights and Americans with Disabilities Act violations at a labor camp that it ran in Iowa since the 1970s. This week, a jury awarded 32 victims in that case $7.5 million each.

The company was accused of practicing disability discrimination in a number of ways. According to the lawsuit, supervisors actually physically abused the men, their living conditions at the labor camp were deplorable and they were paid only 41 cents an hour--never recieving raises over the four decades the camp operated. This case is now spurring federal lawmakers to revisit the loopholes in the law that may have allowed the company to pay these workers such low wages.

Under federal law, some employers have been able to obtain a waiver to pay disabled workers less than minimum wage if they showed that the workers were a part of a training program. Due to this case, the U.S. Department of Justice, the Center for Public Representation and the Civil Rights Division are now reviewing ADA complaints involving wages, and the U.S. Department of Labor is reevaluating the minimum wage waiver program.

It will be interesting to see what may come of those inquiries. While it is great that the EEOC has won this case and has come away with its largest jury verdict ever, it is important that work is done so that such outright ADA violations do not harm any additional workers with disabilities here in Texas or anywhere in the U.S.

Source: Waterloo Cedar Falls Courier, "UPDATE: $240 million awarded in 'landmark' Atalissa workers case," Brian Wellner, May 2, 2013

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