darts and laurels

Darts and Laurels

A paper in the Midwest exposes a scandal. Thirty years later, it does it again.
March 25, 2010

In 1979, Des Moines Register reporters Mike McGraw and Margaret Engel discovered sixty mentally disabled men eviscerating turkeys at an Iowa meat plant for less than $70 a month. The workers were Texas natives who had aged out of state care and been sent to the meat plant to work for subminimum wages by a Texas labor broker called Henry’s Turkey Service. They were housed in an old schoolhouse that was owned by the town of Atalissa and operated by Henry’s, which deducted room and board from the men’s meager paychecks.

The low wages were legal under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, which allows disabled workers to be paid based on their productivity. But it wasn’t clear that anyone had ever assessed the men’s productivity at Atalissa, and there was a clear conflict of interest in Henry’s acting as the men’s employer, landlord, caretaker, and designated recipient of disability benefits. The whole situation raised “thorny questions about how handicapped persons should be paid for their work,” according to the article that McGraw and Engel wrote (PDF). It ran on the front page of the Sunday Register and spurred an investigation by the U.S. Department of Labor.

Shortly after their story was published, McGraw returned to his old paper, The Kansas City Star, where he still works today, and Engel moved to a job at the Register’s Washington, D.C., bureau. They had exposed an injustice and an investigation was under way—the system had worked. The Atalissa story soon fell off their respective radars. “We had reason to believe something would happen,” McGraw says now.

But nothing did. The investigation stalled and eventually was dropped, and with both McGraw and Engel gone, no one at the paper followed up.

Thirty years later the Atalissa bunkhouse story resurfaced at the Register. In February 2009, reporter Clark Kauffman received a call from the sister of a Henry’s Turkey Service employee who had started working at the Atalissa plant in 1979. She was concerned that her brother was being exploited; after three decades working for Henry’s, he had amassed a life savings of just $80. As Kauffman began digging, he unearthed the Register’s original story from the clip file. It turned out that twenty-one of the original sixty men were still living in the same bunkhouse, still plucking turkey feathers and pulling guts at the same slaughterhouse. Their 40-cents-an-hour wage had not changed.

This time the story did not fall through the cracks. Within days of Kauffman’s first calls to state officials, the century-old bunkhouse was shut down by the state fire marshal for unsafe conditions. Kauffman wrote dozens of follow-up stories over the course of nearly a year.

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This time, the state fined Henry’s $900,000 and the U.S. Department of Labor filed a lawsuit against the company for alleged payroll violations. The U.S. Senate and the Iowa state legislature both conducted hearings on the matter, and a state task force led to new laws regulating unlicensed boarding houses and the oversight of employers who qualify for special certificates to pay disabled workers less than the minimum wage.

Margaret Engel, now the director of the Alicia Patterson Foundation for investigative journalism, praises the Register for taking up the story again but laments that it was ever allowed to fade. “I think we all feel guilty that there wasn’t a hand-off or a look-behind,” she says.

McGraw followed the Register’s resurrected investigation from his desk in Missouri. “What amazed me most was that the officials’ level of outrage over the Register’s allegations this time—which were no different than thirty years ago—seemed to be so much higher,” he says. He attributes this, in part, to an evolved view of people with mental disabilities, even among their advocates. “I think people then gave it a big pass because there were few options for mentally disabled young men who aged out of the system.”

Randy Brubaker, the Register’s current managing editor, says the fact that Kauffman’s series could build on a paper trail that McGraw and Engel left helped give his stories the impact that their piece lacked. “We all write things that expose potential injustices,” Brubaker says, “but when news disappears from the front page, the urge for officials to act disappears.”

The Register deserves a LAUREL for hammering a forgotten story until the government finally did its job, but Brubaker’s statement underscores a significant problem in journalism. The fact that the tragedy of Atalissa was allowed to continue for thirty years after it was exposed is an indictment not just of government regulators but also of the media’s propensity to move relentlessly on to the next story, to fire a single bullet at massive, complex problems and consider the job done. This tendency is exacerbated in an era of shrinking newsroom resources and ambitions that erode an outlet’s institutional memory and make it even less likely that reporters will have the time and mandate to tackle these kinds of stories in the first place, let alone stick with them once they have. For that we bestow a DART, not to the Register but to the kind of ephemeral thinking and processes that infect newsrooms nationwide. We hope that this tale from Iowa—both cautionary and inspirational—prompts a thorough scouring of newspaper morgues everywhere. There are bound to be other Atalissas.

Alexandra Fenwick is an assistant editor at CJR.