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A federal court judge has ordered a Utah company with ties to a polygamous church to pay $200,000 to its former child workers and appointed someone to oversee the company's business practices.
U.S. District Judge Tena Campbell criticized Paragon Contracts Corp., which was found to have used children and unpaid workers to harvest pecans at a ranch near Hurricane in 2012 the second time the company was caught doing so.
The first sentence in Campbell's ruling reads: "Behind a veil of secrecy in southern Utah's desert country the defendants profited from the labor of a religious community's children in violation of the court's previous injunction."
Paragon's president is Brian Jessop, a member of the Hildale City Council and, the U.S. Department of Labor has said in court filings, a member of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
Campbell, repeating her earlier findings in the case, again called Paragon's owners "not credible" and said their testimony was "evasive and often ... contradicted by other witnesses' testimony."
The $200,000 is to reimburse workers, many of whom are former FLDS members who testified in the labor case, who were not paid. The Labor Department, which brought the lawsuit after CNN aired video from the 2012 harvest, pointed to witness testimony that as many as 4,000 kids and adults harvested pecans with no compensation.
Brenda Nicholson, a former FLDS member, on Thursday said he wants to apply for some of that money. Nicholson said she and her six children harvested pecans for years.
She said a FLDS leader would typically announce at a Saturday work meeting that it was time for the harvest and anyone who was able to help was expected to go. Home schools would close and people with 15- or 18-passenger vans were expected to transport the workers, Nicholson said. There was no distinction about whether the workers were harvesting for Paragon or the church.
"It was freezing cold and you're trying to get these nuts out of the icy cold ground," Nicholson said.
Children who spent too long trying to warm up in the portable toilets or who weren't good workers were hauled back to Hildale and shamed, Nicholson said.
Unlike work on most family farms, Nicholson said, many of the children worked without supervision, nor was there an inherent benefit to the families that harvested. "We never ate any of the pecans from the harvest," Nicholson said.
Campbell also said she will appoint special master, and ordered Paragon to comply with that person for the next five years. The special master will inspect company business and payroll records and visit work sites to ensure Paragon is following child labor laws. Paragon will have to pay costs associated with the special master.
Campbell rejected a request by the Labor Department to force Paragon to comply with other laws governing overtime, minimum wages and record keeping. While businesses are supposed to be following those laws anyway, an order from Campbell would have made Paragon susceptible to stiffer penalties for any violation.
A statement from the Labor Department on Thursday focused only on what Campbell did order.
"This most recent court decision is but one more victory in our determined effort to uphold the rule of law and vital worker protections, particularly when the workers are children, who are among the most vulnerable," said a statement from Labor Department Associate Regional Solicitor John Rainwater.
A lawyer for Paragon did not return messages seeking comment.
The case did not always go so well for the Labor Department. At one point, a federal judge, citing the U.S. Supreme Court religious freedom ruling involving the retailer Hobby Lobby, ruled that some Paragon employees and FLDS leaders did not have to answer certain questions about the church during depositions. The witnesses still had to answer questions about the harvest and Paragon.
The Labor Department has already assessed fines totaling $1.9 million on Paragon, Jessop and former FLDS Bishop Lyle Jeffs, who was accused of ordering parishioners to the harvest. The Labor Department on Thursday said those fines remain "unresolved."
Last month, the Labor Department settled child labor allegations with another FLDS-connected business called Phaze Concrete. Phaze is to pay two former teenage workers $72,269 and obey labor laws.