Salt Lake City — A federal judge 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.
Now, comes the hard part for the U.S. Department of Labor: Finding the kids who participated in the harvests from 2008-2013.
Federal officials are putting up fliers in southern Utah and launched a blog this week to let people know they have until April 2018 to submit claims to be paid at $7.25 an hour, minimum wage.
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. Prosecutors tried but couldn't identify the children in the video, let alone all the other children who took part in similar harvests, said Karen Bobela, the lead federal attorney on the case. They have no idea how many children participated or how many will submit claims, Bobela said.
"That's an impossible question, really," Bobela said. "Estimates range from hundreds of kids to thousands of kids."
It's been several years and some of those children may have left or been kicked out of the sect or moved to other locations as often happens in a group known as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
Those who are still loyal members of the group may not know the money is available — group leaders try to keep members from using cellphones or the internet.
Others may not want to be paid due a core tenet of the faith that calls for members to help others by working on service projects such as construction and harvests, said Arnold Richter, a former sect member. Richter, who didn't take part in the harvests but likened it to his free work on community construction projects, doesn't expect many current members to come forward.
"These harvests were done as a church activity to benefit the church. It was considered a consecration," said Richter, who was kicked out in 2011 but still lives in the community. "So, you would be going aback on something you consecrated. They were not expecting any type of payment. That's now why they were doing it."
Paragon lawyers didn't return calls seeking comment . They have said previously that the children were glad to get a break from schoolwork to gather nuts.
They plan to appeal U.S. District Judge Tena Campbell's December order calling for the back pay and requiring the company pay a $15,000 retainer and $300 an hour to an independent attorney who will monitor the business for five years.
In a sharply worded order, Campbell found that Paragon sent kids as young as 6 to the 2012 harvest, sometimes with little food and few bathroom breaks.
"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. They weren't tasked with keeping the money from getting back to sect leaders, but federal officials say they'll be on alert in case Paragon or church leaders try to coerce people to kick back the money, said Joe Doolin, of the Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division. In that scenario, Labor officials could open an investigation, he said.
But Doolin also points out that nothing prohibits a person from giving the money to the religious group if it's the person's own decision.
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.
The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints doesn't have a spokesman or contact where it can be reached.
Richter said the company and the church are closely linked, meaning it wouldn't make sense for them to tell the former child workers to solicit money as kickbacks.
If the claims come in less than $200,000, the money would be returned to the company. If claims exceed $200,000, the company must pay out whatever that amount is.
"It would be taking from one hand to give the other hand," Richter said.
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