One of Atalissa’s ‘bunkhouse boys’ dies of COVID-19

This 100-year-old building, now demolished, served as a labor camp and bunkhouse for dozens of mentally disabled men who worked for Henry's Turkey Service between 1969 and 2009. (Photo by Clark Kauffman)

Willie Levi, who lived for 35 years in an Atalissa, Iowa, bunkhouse that served as a labor camp for mentally disabled meatpacking plant workers, has died of COVID-19. He was 73 years old.

New York Times reporter Dan Barry, whose 2016 book “The Boys in the Bunkhouse: Servitude and Salvation in the Heartland” chronicled the lives of Levi and other men in the bunkhouse run by a Texas labor broker called Henry’s Turkey Service, reported this week that Levi died April 23 at his home in Waterloo.

Levi was one of several dozen disabled men that Henry’s had sent from Texas to Atalissa between 1969 and 2008. The men worked in the nearby West Liberty meatpacking plant and lived in the bunkhouse that Henry’s configured from an abandoned, 100-year-old schoolhouse.

Because Henry’s kept most of their wages as payment for room and board, the men typically collected 42 cents an hour in pay for their work at the plant. The bunkhouse, while known to social workers and supervisors at the Iowa Department of Human Services, was never licensed or inspected as a care facility for dependent adults, and eventually fell into a state of disrepair.

By 2009, when the Des Moines Register began reporting on the men’s wages and the conditions at the bunkhouse, the building was infested with vermin, had no functioning boiler and many of its windows were boarded up. State and federal officials inspected the building, declared it a firetrap and immediately relocated the three dozen men living there.

At the time, many of the men showed evidence of serious health problems caused by years of neglect. Levi had a broken kneecap.

No criminal charges were ever filed against Henry’s Turkey Service or its owners, but the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission took the company to court and in 2013 won a record-setting verdict: $240 million, or $7.5 million for each of the 32 men on whose behalf the lawsuit had been filed. Due to a statutory cap on damages, the jury award was immediately reduced to $1.6 million, and even that amount would prove difficult to collect from Henry’s owners.

By then, Levi and several other men from the Atalissa bunkhouse were living in a licensed care facility or in supervised group homes in Waterloo and the surrounding area. Levi was active in the church there, and had retained a lifelong love for music.

Clark Kauffman
Deputy Editor Clark Kauffman has worked during the past 30 years as both an investigative reporter and editorial writer at two of Iowa’s largest newspapers, the Des Moines Register and the Quad-City Times. He has won numerous state and national awards for reporting and editorial writing. His 2004 series on prosecutorial misconduct in Iowa was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. From October 2018 through November 2019, Kauffman was an assistant ombudsman for the Iowa Office of Ombudsman, an agency that investigates citizens’ complaints of wrongdoing within state and local government agencies.