SALT LAKE CITY — A federal judge said Monday that she needs more information before determining whether to hold a pecan company in contempt for violating an order to stop using unpaid and underage laborers in polygamous towns on the Utah-Arizona border.
U.S. Labor Department attorneys argue Paragon Contractors failed to pay 1,400 workers — including 175 children— who participated in a 2012 pecan harvest. They say those actions violated a 2007 order issued by a federal judge.
Labor attorney Karen Bobela told U.S. District Judge Tena Campbell on Monday that the government is taking this new legal action because previous attempts to stop the company's practices and get it to pay up haven't worked. They want Campbell to impose new penalties and issue an amended order prohibiting the practice.
In a separate but related action, the Labor Department is also seeking to collect $1.9 million in unpaid penalties from the contracting company, two sect members that own the company and Lyle Jeffs, who leads the polygamous Fundamentalist LDS church with his brother, the imprisoned Warren Jeffs.
Attorney Rick Sutherland, representing Paragon, said in court that there's no evidence the 2007 order was violated. He said the Labor Department is going beyond what's allowed.
"I wonder why we are here in the first place?" Sutherland said.
Sutherland didn't address the back pay issue during the hearing and declined comment outside court.
Campbell ordered both sides to submit court briefs laying out their arguments over the next two months ahead of a hearing set for January.
The government has submitted affidavits from children who say they harvested pecans for years at the direction of leaders working under Warren Jeffs. Alyssa Bistline, 21, says she was 13 when she started working. She said she and other girls would work from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. in a shed, sorting, hulling and bagging nuts.
A 14-year-old girl said she started working at the ranch at age 10, and continued for two years. She said even girls with allergies had to work until they couldn't stand it anymore.
A 9-year-old boy says he was a ranch worker when he was 6.