A federal judge in Utah recently ordered a company with ties to a polygamous sect on the Utah-Arizona border to set aside $200,000 to pay back wages to children who prosecutors say were forced to pick pecans.
The U.S. government's child labor case against Paragon Contractors started in 2012 based on CNN video showings dozens of small children in a harvest. Therefore, the case gained attention. It’s reported that Paragon Contractors Corp. is operated by Hildale City Councilman Brian Jessop.
The Labor Department found evidence that FLDS leaders ordered families to take children out of school to pick the nuts. The children picked pecans in what some witnesses described as freezing cold conditions. U.S. District Court Judge Tena Campbell found that Paragon sent kids as young as 6 to the 2012 harvest, sometimes with little food and few bathroom breaks.
Federal prosecutors alleged that the company has deep connections to the sect led by Warren Jeffs, who is serving a life sentence in Texas after being convicted of sexually assaulting girls he considered brides. The company was under pressure to make money for its leaders when it sent children to the fields, they said.
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. Children found to have worked on the harvest are eligible for $7.25 per hour.
The Labor Department has created a special form for the workers. Parents can complete the forms and apply for their minor children.
Estimates range from hundreds of kids to thousands of kids.Local officials don't have any idea how many people are eligible.
"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.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.
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.
To reach the groups, the Labor Department has posted flyers in St. George and in Hildale and adjoining Colorado City, Ariz. Phone number of the Wage and Hour Division offices in Salt Lake City was also presented.
"Behind a veil of secrecy in Southern Utah's desert country the defendants profited from the labor of a religious community's children," Campbell wrote in the order.Under her order, federal officials are supposed to make a reasonable attempt to let people know about the available back wages.
Federal officials say they'll be on alert in case Paragon or church leaders try to coerce people to kick back the money, said Doolin, of the Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division. In that scenario, Labor officials could open an investigation, he said.