SALT LAKE CITY — The U.S. Department of Labor has filed a set of lawsuits against the Fundamentalist LDS Church and some of its leaders after a multi-year investigation into the church's alleged use of child labor and other violations.
The lawsuits filed Tuesday in federal court accuses top church leaders of pulling children in Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Arizona, out of school for weeks to work during the 2012-13 pecan harvest, all while not paying members for their work.
An administrative action filed within the Department of Labor is also seeking $1.9 million in penalties for the alleged child labor violations.
As many as 175 children under the age of 13 were found among the 1,400 children and adults who harvested pecans at the Southern Utah Pecan Ranch in Hurricane but were not paid, according to one of the lawsuits.
"These children worked for the defendants in agriculture performing various job duties, including but not limited to: pruning trees, mowing fields, maintenance duties, picking and bagging pecans, shaking trees, driving equipment, cleanup work, and preparing pecans for commerce," the lawsuit states. "Defendants knew that they were employing these children during school hours without pay."
The lawsuit naming FLDS Bishop Lyle Jeffs; member Dale Barlow, who supervised the ranch; and the two operating branches of the church, the Corporation of the President and Corporation of the Presiding Bishop, is seeking back wages for the 1,400 workers. Because no record of the work was kept, it is unclear just how much is owed, the lawsuit notes.
Another federal court filing accuses Paragon Contractors Corporation, a Hildale construction company that manages the pecan groves, and the company's owner, FLDS member Dan Jessop, of violating a 2007 injunction handed down when child labor violations were discovered at the pecan ranch.
In the filing, a stepdaughter of Jessop's brother claims that she began working for the pecan ranch when she was 15 years old, working up to 15 hours with other young girls shelling pecans in a "sorting shed." She later worked in a Paragon office, including managing the sign-in sheets used for children working at the ranch.
The young woman confirmed that the FLDS members were not paid for their work, according to court documents.
David Weil, the department's Wage and Hour Division administrator, said in a prepared statement Wednesday that church leaders' suspected ongoing violations of labor laws, especially concerning children, cannot be tolerated.
"The legal actions taken today send a clear message that the Wage and Hour Division will take any and all actions necessary to protect the rights of the most vulnerable. Today we speak up for those who could not or would not speak up for themselves," Weil said.