SALT LAKE CITY — Federal labor lawyers asked a judge Friday to order a contracting company with ties to a polygamous sect to pay at least $200,000 in back wages to children who were sent to work picking pecans for long hours in the cold.
A lawyer for Paragon Contractors pushed back during a court hearing in Salt Lake City, saying the sanctions are overreaching and it would be unfair for the company to set aside money without evidence on how much it owes.
U.S. District Judge Tena Campbell is considering what penalties to order after she decided the company sent kids as young as 6 to work the 2012 harvest, sometimes with little food and few bathroom breaks.
Prosecutors also want the company to be monitored by an independent overseer for years. It's the only way to ensure Paragon doesn't keep using children from the Fundamentalist LDS Church as free labor, said attorney Karen Bobela.
"The defendants did not act alone. They did act with the FLDS Church and developed a very sophisticated scheme involving multiple players in a very small community," she said.
The U.S. Department of Labor wants the $200,000 set aside so children who didn't get paid could submit their hours and be reimbursed. The company can afford it, having reported revenues of $4.5 million in 2011, prosecutors say.
But company lawyer Rick Sutherland said Paragon's financial situation has changed. He argued that there haven't been any new allegations in the past few years, so there's no call to bring in an outside overseer and make Paragon pay for it.
Prosecutors disagree. There's only one federal labor investigator in southern Utah, and he can't do his job and keep an eye on Paragon, Bobela said. The manpower shortage has hampered investigations into new child labor allegations against companies related to Paragon, she said.
Campbell asked lawyers to submit more information on the company's financial state. She didn't immediately rule on sanctions.
The case is one of several aimed at reining in the secretive group that lives along the Utah-Arizona border and is tied to abuses from underage marriage to discrimination against nonmembers. Labor lawyers also filed a case in August against another FLDS-linked company, Phaze Concrete, accused of using underage laborers for long hours for little pay in dangerous conditions.
Meanwhile, an Arizona jury found this spring that the twin polygamous towns violated the constitutional rights of nonbelievers by denying them basic services such as police protection.
Several members have also been charged in Utah with conducting a multimillion-dollar food stamp fraud scheme, though leader Lyle Jeffs escaped home confinement in that case and remains on the run.