ST. GEORGE — A federal judge has found a company to be in contempt of court for allegedly putting thousands of Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints children to work on a Southern Utah pecan farm.
U.S. District Court Judge Tena Campbell ruled that Brian Jessop and Paragon Contractors Corporation were in contempt of court, according to an order issued Wednesday, for a 2012 incident in which hundreds of FLDS children were filmed picking pecans at Southern Utah Pecan Ranch (SUPR) in Hurricane.
The incident was in violation of a 2007 court order that restrained Jessop and Paragon Contractors from violating child labor laws.
The pecan grove is approximately 125 acres with close to 4,500 producing pecan trees which yield up to 160,000 pecans per year, according to the Court’s findings of fact.
FLDS leaders directed schools in Hildale and Colorado City be closed so that children and adult laborers could work collecting pecans, according to court documents. During the 2012-2013 harvest, 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.
The defendants attempted to show that the children’s work at the pecan farm was voluntary but the children’s testimony did not support that contention, according to the findings of fact.
When asked whether he had a choice to go work at the pecan farm when his teachers told him to go, a boy, who was 6 years old at the time of the harvest, testified that the children “really didn’t have a choice.”
“The children were not volunteers,” Judge Campbell wrote in Wednesday’s order. “Also, much of the work occurred during school hours and was hazardous, so that work does not qualify for FLSA’s agricultural exemption.”
Campbell pointed some of the blame at the FLDS Church for ordering members to work on the farm.
“Moreover, hanging over the decision whether to work was the threat of retaliation by the FLDS Church if the members did not follow instructions,” Campbell wrote.
One witness testified that he lived in the Short Creek area, was a member of the FLDS community and had sent five of his children to work at the pecan farm once they reached the ages of eight or nine. He testified that he sent the children “any time the Church told us to, and they generally worked Monday through Saturday,” according to court documents.
Many witnesses testified that if they were to disobey church orders to work on the farm, they were told they would lose their family and be removed from the church.
The FLDS polygamous sect has historically claimed the twin cities of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Arizona, as home base and is led by Warren Jeffs, who is serving a life sentence in Texas after being convicted of crimes related to marrying and sexually abusing underage girls he considered brides.
Last year, the federal government filed a lawsuit against the FLDS Church to collect $1.9 million in civil penalties associated with child labor violations from the 2012-2013 pecan harvest.
Judge Campbell did not include penalties in her contempt of court ruling Wednesday. Instead, she asked Jessop, the company and the Labor Department to file briefs later this month before making a determination.
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