It appears that Leon Jones, the Newberry, SC, poultry worker profiled in the New York Times earlier this month, was one of a handful of mentally disabled men taken into protective custody after state officials learned they were being taken advantage of by their employer.
A South Carolina television station reported earlier this week that four unidentified individuals were taken into protective custody by the SC Department of Social Services after they were found living in a bunkhouse while being charged rent rates equivalent to that for a house or nice apartment.
None were identified, but it appears almost certain that Jones was one of the four. Although the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission was investigating Jones’ situation, it’s likely the Dec. 6 New York Times story prompted South Carolina authorities to act.
According to the Times, Jones has “an intellectual disability and a swollen right hand that aches from 40 years of hanging live turkeys on shackles that swing them to their slaughter. His wallet contains no photos or identification, as if, officially, he does not exist.”
Born in Texas, Jones was recruited from the Abilene State School, an institution for people with developmental disabilities, “only to wind up living in virtual servitude, without many basic rights,” the publication added.
He is employed as a contract worker by a Texas firm, Henry’s Turkey Services, and hired out to the Kraft Foods plant in Newberry. He had been living in a rundown bunkhouse, sharing space with other workers.
The Times described his spartan living conditions: “His small bed was in a corner, a few feet from a young man wearing a black-knit ‘Jesus’ cap and watching Spanish-language television at a loud volume, and not far from a bathroom with open stalls and a wet floor. Mr. Jones’s locker contained clothes, cowboy boots and a plastic envelope of old cards and letters, the last one from 1992.”
Jones had few amenities and no connection to government services for people with disabilities. He does have a brother, Carl Wayne, but the two haven’t seen each other in at least 40 years because the people who hired them decades ago eventually decided to send Leon to South Carolina and Carl Wayne to the Midwest. The latter is currently in Iowa.
Leon Jones earns $8 an hour. His paychecks, which total about $800 a month, and his Social Security payments, are deposited directly into what the television station called an escrow account, from which the costs of his room and board are deducted.
All told, Jones and the other men would receive $65 a month.
“The problem came in is how their finances were being handled,” Newberry County Sheriff Lee Foster told Columbia, SC, television station WACH. “What’s under investigation now is what happened to the rest of that money from the wages that they received.”
Henry’s Turkey Service took advantage of a section of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 that allowed certified employers to pay a sub-minimum wage to workers with a disability.
“The company, if they can find somebody that can work for less amount of money and they could contract with the big corporations, the ones that are making the product, and charge them per hour and pay less per hour … that’s a profit,” Foster said.
If the company is found to have misappropriated money belonging to Jones or others, it could face legal repercussions.
While it would seem like a no-brainer to place individuals such as Leon Jones in an environment more conducive to a 64-year-old with disabilities, the move probably hasn’t been an easy one. Change can be hard on those with disabilities, especially if they’ve been in the same routine for years or decades.
One can only hope that this story has a happy ending.
First, I’d like to believe that Leon Jones and the other disabled individuals he roomed with will be able to transition to their new environment with as little difficulty as possible, and that all are able to recover the full compensation due them for years of thankless labor so that they can live out their final years in peace and contentment.
Second, perhaps this story will serve as a cautionary tale for individuals and companies who think they can exploit those unable to speak up for themselves. It’s difficult to feel anything but contempt and scorn for those who abuse the weakest members of society.
(Top: Leon Jones inside his “home,” a bunkhouse near the Kraft Foods plant in Newberry, SC. Photo credit: New York Times.)