I was sickened last week when I read an article written by our own Liz Carey, telling us about a restaurant manager in South Carolina who pled guilty to enslaving and abusing a mentally challenged employee. While I am certain that everyone who read that story was repulsed by what they learned, for me it had a fairly personal effect. I spent many of my early professional years in restaurant management, and in the 1980's employed several people who were mentally challenged. I was honored in 1987 to be named the Employer of the Year by Easter Seals of Southwest Florida; so, to read what happened to this man was exceptionally disturbing.
The abuse described in that story is sickening. The employee was forced to live in a roach infested apartment behind the restaurant. He worked 100 hours a week, never getting a day off. He wasn't paid for that work, and was routinely beaten and tortured, including being burned with tongs that had been dipped in the fryer. As I read the article, I could not help but think, where the hell was everybody? Why didn't someone say something?
As disturbing as the managers actions were, it is the silence of the entire supporting cast that concerns me even more.
Five years ago I wrote about one of my employees, named Paul (I will not repeat what a positive experience it was here – you can follow this link if you'd like to learn more). He was exactly the type of person who could have found himself in that evil situation. He had no family and would follow instructions to the best of his ability without question. Fortunately, Paul's circumstances weren't anything like what we read about in that South Carolina hellhole. Many of my employees took him under their wing and were quite protective of him. Customers were also supportive, and I have many fond memories from the experience of working with him. I cannot fathom an environment where the type of abuse Carey wrote about could have existed.
The horrific abuse of this special needs employee reportedly went on for 6 years. Certainly, other employees had to know some of what was happening. They may not have had access to the payroll information to know that he wasn't getting paid, but certainly the physical abuse must have been apparent to some. Or perhaps the fact that the guy worked 15-hour shifts and never had a day off. Think that was a clue?? In the end, it was the parent of another employee who noticed scars on the man's neck and alerted authorities.
So why didn't someone stand up and say something earlier?
We have often discussed the challenges of overcoming disability and enabling successful return to work. Part of that discussion has centered on the failure of employers to embrace the need to change when it comes to disability management. We cannot afford to continually funnel people down a path of disability and must foster an environment that encourages success despite impairment. The South Carolina restaurant tale is not just a story of abuse; it is an indictment of the indifference that still exists within our society. We should not accept this any longer.
If we are to be successful at integrating people with impairments to the workplace, then attitudes need to change. And if this story tells us anything, it's that it is not just the employers attitude that may need adjustment.
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Robert Wilson is President & CEO of WorkersCompensation.com, and "From Bob's Cluttered Desk" comes his (often incoherent) thoughts, ramblings, observations and rants - often on workers' comp or employment issues, but occasionally not.
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