Government seeking kids from polygamous sect who picked pecans in Utah — to give them money

Kids who worked at pecan farm in violation of labor laws eligible to collect from $200K pool.

Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune l-r Lyle Jeffs, believed to be the FLDS bishop in Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Arizona, and Nephi Jeffs appeared in U. S. District Court in Salt Lake City, Wednesday, January 21, 2015. Both men, who are Warren Jeffs' brothers, have been served subpoenas in a U.S. Department of Labor lawsuit against Paragon Contractors, that provided labor for the Southern Utah Pecan Ranch near Hurricane. Both businesses are owned by members of the FLDS. Labor department investigators, according to court documents, believe that as many as 1,400 school-age children and their parents participated in the harvest.

The children picked pecans in what some witnesses described as freezing cold conditions.

And, a federal judge in Utah determined, their employer, who was loyal to the polygamous Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, had them doing so in violation of the law.

Now the U.S. Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division is trying to find those children in order to pay them back wages. There is a pool of $200,000 from which the children are eligible to collect, and that amount could increase.

"It's unique, as far as I'm concerned," said Joseph Doolin, district director for the Wage and Hour Division offices in Salt Lake City.

During a Monday conference call, Doolin and other Labor Department staff said they were not aware of another example in which the agency has tried to find workers from such a secretive community, and who worked for a company that kept no records of their employment.

Labor Department staffers don't even know how many employees they are seeking. Some witnesses described hundreds of workers picking pecans at the ranch near Hurricane; others talk of thousands.

"I don't think we have any idea how many people are eligible," said Karen E. Bobela, a trial attorney for Labor Department's Office of the Solicitor.

Bobela and Doolin do know the demographic they are seeking: Kids who picked at the Southern Utah Pecan Ranch from 2008 through 2013 in violation of labor laws.

Paragon Contractors Corp., operated by Hildale City Councilman Brian Jessop, used the children and an unknown number of adults to harvest the pecans. The Labor Department found evidence that FLDS leaders ordered families to take children out of school to pick the nuts. The harvests gained attention when CNN aired video of children working at the ranch in December 2012.

U.S. District Court Judge Tena Campbell has ordered Paragon to pay $200,000 in back wages, though she has left open the possibility of boosting that amount if enough workers apply. Children found to have worked on the harvest are eligible for $7.25 per hour, though it is also possible that rate could be more, depending on the work the child performed and how many people apply.

The Labor Department has created a special form for the workers. Parents can complete the forms and apply for their minor children.

Bobela and Doolin are looking for child workers who are still in the FLDS, as well as those who have left the church. To reach the groups, the Labor Department has posted flyers in St. George and in Hildale and adjoining Colorado City, Ariz.

Applicants can also call the Wage and Hour Division offices in Salt Lake City at 801-257-6562.

The FLDS practice a communal form of living in which members consecrate belongings and wages to the church. Bobela acknowledged children or families still in the faith may choose to give back wages to the FLDS. The Labor Department would intervene only if Paragon pressed workers to give their back wages to the company, she said.

"Once they're paid wages," she said, "it's their money."

Paragon has appealed Campbell's ruling to the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. That appeal is pending.


Twitter: @natecarlisle

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