- Associated Press - Tuesday, November 24, 2015

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - A company accused of using unpaid laborers from a Utah-based polygamous group to pick pecans says the women and children were picking up fallen nuts, not working as employees.

Lawyers for Paragon Contractors said in new court documents that most of the harvest was done with mechanized equipment. After it was finished, the harvest manager invited families from the group led by Warren Jeffs to gather nuts on the ground, and it allowed them to keep half of what they gathered.

The U.S. Labor Department attorneys disagree. They say children from the polygamous group harvested nuts for years on the southern Utah farm at the direction of church leaders who left phone messages telling parents to take days off from homeschooling so the children could work.

A judge is expected to hear arguments in the case on Jan. 25.

The government says the company violated a 2007 order involving underage labor and should be held in contempt for failing to pay 1,400 workers - including 175 children- who participated in a 2012 pecan harvest.

Paragon and several members of the polygamous group have already been fined a total of $1.9 million after a labor investigation found that sect leaders directed the harvest. The agency now wants a judge to order the payment of back wages and order the firm to stop the practices.

People who participated in the harvest say children as young as 6 years old worked on the ranch. In affidavits filed by the Labor Department, they said underage workers worked long hours, got sick from crawling over the damp ground and were sent to the harvest even if they had allergies and told to work until they couldn’t anymore.

But Paragon says in court documents filed Friday that the nut gathering by members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was arranged by the harvest manager, who wasn’t a direct employee, and the work wasn’t forced.

“The families were free to choose whether to participate in the nut gathering as well as to determine what time they would devote to gleaning or what effort they would expend if they did show up,” the documents state.

Paragon lawyers also point out that farm work is generally exempt from child labor laws in Utah as long as it’s done outside of school hours.

Children in the group are homeschooled, and minors who worked on the farm were with their parents, so they can’t be said to be working during school hours, Paragon argued.

The nut harvest happened in Hurricane, about 300 miles south of Salt Lake City.

The leader of the polygamous group, Warren Jeffs, is serving a life prison sentence in Texas after being convicted in 2011 of sexually assaulting underage girls he considered brides. Members of his sect, a radical offshoot of mainstream Mormonism, believe polygamy brings exaltation in heaven.

Polygamy is a legacy of the early teachings of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. However, the mainstream church and its 15 million members worldwide abandoned the practice more than century ago.


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