- Associated Press - Thursday, October 1, 2015

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - Children say they harvested pecans for years for a bishop in the polygamous sect led by Warren Jeffs.

Federal labor authorities say Paragon Contractors, located on land owned by the sect, used children and unpaid labor to pick pecans on the Southern Utah Pecan Ranch, the Salt Lake Tribune reported (https://bit.ly/1OJGNNU).

New filings in the Labor Department’s case include statements from people, some still minors, who said they worked the ranch. Lawyers for the agency are asking a judge to order the company to pay back wages to female and child laborers, and order the company to stop the practices.

An affidavit from 21-year-old Alyssa Bistline says she was 13 years old when she started working.

“For five years, I was part of the main crew,” Bistline’s affidavit says, “and along with other girls would work every day in the sorting shed, where we would sort, hull and bag nuts. I also sometimes helped the crews on the ground, pruning and picking up nuts.

“When working in the sorting shed, we began work at 7 or 8 a.m. and worked until around 10 p.m. During the 2012 summer, there were five to 10 other girls working with me between the ages of 12 and 20.”

The firm and several members of the group known as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints were fined a total of $1.9 million after a labor investigation found that sect leaders directed the harvest that was captured by news cameras in 2012.

Paragon Contractors, owned by Brian Jessop, held the harvest contract. Bistline said Jessop works closely with FLDS bishop Lyle Jeffs, the brother of imprisoned FLDS President Warren Jeffs.

Bistline said Lyle Jeffs handed out ranch assignments.

A 14-year-old girl says in an affidavit that she started working at the ranch at age 10, and continued for two years. She said even girls with allergies had to work.

“And they were told to keep picking nuts until it gets bad enough that you can’t work anymore and then maybe you can help with bagging nuts,” she said.

An affidavit from a 9-year-old boy says he was a ranch worker when he was 6 years old. Another from an 11-year-old girl says she was 7 and 8 years old when she worked the ranch.

“. In November and December, it was really cold and sometimes there were lots of people clogging up the restrooms just trying to get warm,” she says in her affidavit. “It kept a line going for hours. A lot of people were getting sick because the ground was always damp and people were crawling over the ground, picking up nuts.”

It’s unclear whether Paragon has an attorney after the company’s lawyer withdrew from the case, and there was no answer at the publicly listed phone number for the company.

The sect is a radical offshoot of mainstream Mormonism whose members believe polygamy brings exaltation in heaven. Polygamy is a legacy of the early teachings of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but the mainstream faith prohibits it today.

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Information from: The Salt Lake Tribune, https://www.sltrib.com

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