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Company Owes Pecan-Picking Church Children $200K

By George Khoury, Esq. on March 16, 2018 6:57 AM

A recent Tenth Circuit decision upholding a contempt sanction issued by the lower district court provides some certainty for organizations that use children for unpaid labor. The basic lesson is that if kids are going to pick nuts on a commercial ranch operation, they need to be paid in money, not peanuts or pecans.

The Fundamental Church of Latter-day Saints, perhaps most widely known for their pro-polygamy stance, got mixed up with Paragon Contractors Corporation, which was recently ordered to pay the church's children $200,000 for unpaid wages again. The corporation attempted to argue that the church kids were actually volunteers, and regardless, the corp. claimed that the church controlled the children, not them. Neither of these arguments persuaded the appellate court to reverse the sanction.

Working for Nuts

The pecan-picking church children started off innocently enough. A pecan ranch in Utah created an informal agreement with the church to allow the congregation to come through and pick up nuts off the ground after the ranch did its main harvest. The church kept half of the nuts and gave the other half to the ranch. This continued until 2007 when an injunction went into place limiting the use of child labor through the church. The injunction specifically restricted Paragon from employing children in oppressive conditions.

The following year, Paragon took over operations at the pecan ranch, and coordinated with the church to send volunteers to do the work. Paragon, notably, is tied to Warren and Lyle Jeffs, the now imprisoned leaders of the FLDS church. Paragon kept 70% of the proceeds while the ranch got the other 30%. And though Paragon may have thought being once or twice removed from the use of child volunteers could insulate them from liability for using child labor, they were wrong. Curiously, it was noted that children used "power-driven work-working machines," despite the fact that children generally are not permitted to use power equipment to perform labor.

Church members claimed that the volunteer labor was coerced. Members feared repercussions for refusing to participate or send their children, including being excluded from the church.

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