Polygamous town contractor must pay $1M to child workers
Salt Lake City – A judge has ordered a contractor with ties to a polygamous group on the Utah-Arizona border to pay more than $1 million in back wages to children who prosecutors say were forced to pick pecans from 2008-2013.
U.S. District Judge Tena Campbell ruled Tuesday based on the Department of Labor’s determination that 104 workers were eligible for back pay from Paragon Contractors, who demonstrated a “clear pattern of oppressive child labor” that violated a 2007 agreement to stop the practice. The ruling is the latest development in a long-running case
Labor officials say the majority of the children worked an average of six days a week and about three months each year.
Rick Sutherland, a lawyer for Paragon, didn’t immediately return an email seeking comment.
The company previously argued the kids volunteered with their families to pick up fallen nuts for the needy.
The company was previously ordered to put $200,000 into a fund for back wages while officials determined exactly how much they owed. The new order calls on Paragon to put in an additional $813,000 in the fund within a month.
Paragon appealed the order to pay $200,000, but it was upheld by a U.S. appeals court last year. The appeals court did side with Paragon in determining that a lower court judge erred in assigning Paragon Contractors a special master to monitor the company.
The harvests occurred in the twin cities of Hildale, Utah and Colorado City, Arizona. The community is the home base of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, of FLDS, an offshoot of mainstream Mormonism that practices polygamy.
Prosecutors have said Paragon worked closely with leaders of the FLDS to funnel children to the harvests.
The group’s longtime leader is Warren Jeffs, who is currently serving a life sentence in Texas after being convicted of sexually assaulting girls he considered brides. Current leaders don’t have a spokesman or contact where they can be reached.
Labor officials had estimated that Paragon put about 200 children to work in the harvests but couldn’t know for sure because the company didn’t keep records of the work hours.
The agency set out to find the former child workers and make them aware of the available back pay by creating a hotline, posting flyers in and around Hildale and Colorado City, creating a blog about the process and doing public service announcements on radio and TV in Utah.
During the one-year window to respond, the department heard from 135 people who provided information about when and where they worked. Labor officials reviewed the information to make sure it matched what they knew about the harvests, and determined 31 people weren’t eligible.
The back pay calculations were done using the federal minimum wage at the time of the work, court documents show.
The case was one of several government crackdowns aimed at reining in the group. The city governments that used to be run entirely by sect members are being closely watched by court-appointed monitors after they were found guilty of civil rights violations against non-members. Federal prosecutors in Utah also reached plea deals with several members charged in a multimillion-dollar food stamp fraud scheme. Government-ordered evictions have taken away hundreds of homes from FLDS members who refuse to pay property taxes and $100-a-month occupancy fees due to their religious beliefs.