A polygamous cult, Amazon warehouses, and child exploitation: An ex-member of a Mormon sect says he would sometimes work 18-hour days as a teen building distribution centers

Insider/August 23, 2022

By Katherine Long and Haven Orecchio-Egresitz

At 17, Wendell Jeffson says he worked as a welder for $18 an hour, sometimes clocking 18-hour days to build Amazon distribution centers in Michigan and California.

Jeffson was hoisted high into the air by lifts to perform metal-welding work on the roofs of warehouses, he said. He operated heavy machinery like forklifts and metal-punching and shearing equipment "on a daily basis," he added. Much of Jeffson's work to build Amazon warehouses was illegal, he said, because he was under 18 for part of the time and minors are prohibited by law from working in high-risk construction jobs.

But to Jeffson, it seemed normal: "That was the kind of life we lived, not really anything but work," he told Insider.

By the time he started working on Amazon warehouses in 2017, he said he had been illegally working in construction for three years, employed by companies with ties to a sect Jeffson was born into — which his father led. Jeffson's claims raise questions about how carefully some of the largest companies in the country, including Amazon, have scrutinized the labor practices of their contractors.

Jeffson is the son of Warren Jeffs, the imprisoned leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints — a radical group that splintered off of the mainstream Mormon church 93 years ago.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or the Mormon church, abandoned the practice of polygamy over a century ago and is not affiliated with the FLDS.

The FLDS is widely considered a cult. Jeffs is serving a life sentence plus 20 years for presiding over arranged marriages between underage girls and FLDS members and sexually assaulting two underage girls he claimed were his "spiritual wives."

The company that Jeffson said employed him to work on Amazon warehouses, BZI Construction, is under investigation in Oregon over allegations of wage theft and child-labor-law violations at another under-construction Amazon warehouse south of Portland, Insider previously reported. Labor regulators have cracked down on FLDS-linked companies in the past, issuing a string of child-labor and wage-theft citations, including for employing children as young as 13 to drive forklifts on construction sites.

Jeffson said he started working for the company in 2017, where he helped build Amazon warehouses owned by the developers Hillwood Investment Properties and McDonald Property Group and contracted by Ryan Cos. and Clayco. As a BZI employee, he said he also remodeled Walmart stores in Florida. After fleeing the sect three years ago, Jeffson is speaking out against the FLDS-linked companies that employed him to work hazardous construction jobs as a minor.

He said he's not sure whether BZI continued to employ child labor. But if it continues to get contracts with household-name brands like Amazon and Walmart, it's because BZI and other FLDS-linked companies "built themselves up on our backs," he said, referring to the children he said worked there.

An Amazon spokesperson said in an email that the company "does not tolerate any illegal labor practices" and insisted "on the highest standards from all of our contractors." Though the projects Jeffson says he worked on have been complete for several years, Amazon will look into Jeffson's allegations, the spokesperson added. Walmart did not respond to requests for comment.

Bob Hester, BZI's human-resources director, said in an email that Jeffson's description of working as a teenage welder for BZI was a "misrepresentation." Hester did not respond to a question about how Jeffson misrepresented his employment, citing the need to maintain confidentiality around personnel matters. BZI also declined to make its CEO, James Barlow, available for an interview.

BZI "operates legally and ethically in all aspects of our business and in all dealings with our Team Members, partners, vendors and customers," Hester wrote, adding: "Any claims to the contrary are unfounded and unsubstantiated."

Jeffson previously told Insider he began working on construction sites for FLDS-affiliated companies when he was 14. Some of those companies had him remodeling and building hotels and homes for church leaders, he added.

"I was kind of freaked out when I was 14 and they told me, 'Go jump in this big piece of heavy equipment,'" Jeffson said. "I was pretty scared, and I remember I didn't want to, but at that point, I was like, 'I got to learn sometime,' so I just did it and overcame the fear."

BZI is not the only FLDS-linked company that has been investigated over child-labor allegations. Barlow, BZI's CEO, formerly served as an executive at another FLDS-linked company, Phaze Concrete, which in 2016 settled a child-labor and wage-theft suit with the Department of Labor. Phaze admitted no wrongdoing but paid two teenage employees $144,000 in back wages. Washington state also fined Phaze $11,000 in 2019 over child-labor allegations.

In 2021, a US District Court judge ordered the FLDS and two of its affiliates to pay nearly $1 million over allegations that it had underage church members work on pecan farms.

Clayco, Hillwood Investment Properties, McDonald Property Group, and Ryan Cos. — the general contractors and developers for the Amazon warehouses in Beaumont, California, and Shelby, Michigan, where Jeffson says he worked as a teenager — did not respond to requests for comment.

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.

Educational DVDs and Videos