The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) illegally used hundreds of children in southern Utah and northern Arizona to harvest pecans, according to a complaint filed by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour division against the church and its leaders.
The labor department said a multi-year investigation revealed that FLDS Church Bishop Lyle Jeffs, Dale Barlow, Brian Jessop, and Paragon Contractors Corp. employed young children illegally to harvest pecans. The department is seeking back wages associated with child labor violations from the 2012-2013 pecan harvest and up to $1.9 million in civil penalties from Paragon, Jessop, and Barlow.
The department initiated a contempt proceeding against Jessop and Paragon for violating a 2007 court order that had blocked them from violating child labor laws.
The Wage and Hour Division found FLDS leaders directed schools in Hildale, Utah, and nearby Colorado City, Arizona, be closed during the 2012-2013 harvest so that children and adult laborers could work harvesting pecans. Investigators found that at least 175 children under the age of 13 worked harvesting pecans, and at least 1,400 FLDS children and adults worked in the fields for no compensation, according to the complaint.
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“For years, these employers have trampled on the rights of workers, both children and adults, and violated our child labor laws forcing minors to work for them,” Wage and Hour Division Administrator David Weil said in a statement.
The agency action paints a picture of an organization willing to flout child labor laws at every turn. Jessop and Paragon made it extremely difficult to obtain information regarding the identity of the children that worked during the pecan harvest, as well as their ages and hours worked, according to court documents filed in support of the agency’s contempt charge.
Using a “very conservative estimate,” the labor department claims that FLDS used at least 125 of children under the age of 12; at least 50 children between the ages of 12 and 13; and at least 25 children between the ages of 14 and 15 in its agricultural operation.
FLDS used child labor in pruning trees, mowing fields, maintenance duties, picking and bagging pecans, shaking trees, driving equipment, cleanup work, and preparing pecans for commerce, according to the complaint. This work was done without pay and during school hours.
Weil said the lawsuit and related administrative actions allows the agency to “speak up for those who could not or would not speak up for themselves” and are designed to “send a clear message that the Wage and Hour Division will take any and all actions necessary to protect the rights of the most vulnerable.”
“Such disregard for the rights of all workers, especially children, will not be tolerated,” Weil said.