- A former FLDS cult member told Insider he was forced to work in construction as a child.
- From the age of 14, he said he was operating heavy machinery at job sites around the country.
- He said companies with ties to FLDS were contracted to work at the build sites of major hotel chains.
When Wendell Jeffson was 14 years old, he said his father — a now-imprisoned leader of a polygamous cult — accused him and other teenage boys of wanting to have sex with some of his more than 70 wives.
That was four years before Jeffson, now 21, left the Fundamentalist Church of Later-Day Saints — a radical group that splintered off of the mainstream Mormon church 93 years ago. The Mormon church abandoned the practice of polygamy over a century ago and is not affiliated with FLDS.
Jeffson explained that in the FLDS, which is widely considered a cult, there was no talk of the “birds and the bees.”
The adolescent didn’t understand what he was being accused of, nor was it true, but the punishment stood regardless, he said.
Jeffson said that he and other boys who came under the ire of his father and cult leader, Warren Jeffs, were “cast out” of the massive FLDS ranch in Texas — which Jeffson said his father continued to control from his cell — and made to work for construction companies owned by members of the cult.
Construction has been a popular business venture for many FLDS families in the Hilldale region of Utah — a church enclave — and beyond. Members of the church own and operate many such companies.
Jeffson said working long days off-the-books, often unpaid, the children who were sent to work for these companies operated heavy machinery on construction sites, building hotels and housing communities around the country in the 2010s.
Multiple outlets have reported about accusations of the use of child labor by companies linked to FLDS. In 2021, FLDS was ordered by the Department of Labor to pay nearly $1 million for violating child labor laws, per CNN.
“I was kind of freaked out when I was 14 and they told me, ‘go jump in this big piece of heavy equipment,'” Jeffson told Insider. “I was pretty scared and I remember I didn’t want to, but at that point, I was like ‘I got to learn sometime’ so I just did it and overcame the fear.”
Jeffson said the kids worked at the sites of Residence Inns, Holiday Inns, Marriotts, and other hotel chains, but he doubts the companies were aware of the child labor.
Multiple emailed requests for comment to spokespeople for Holiday Inn and Marriott (which also owns Residence Inn) were not returned.
Jeffson is not the only former FLDS member to report having to work as a minor, unpaid, for companies with ties to FLDS. The Department of Labor has investigated and fined multiple companies connected to the group — including two that Jeffson said he worked for — for child labor and wage violations.
Cut off from the outside world
Jeffson — who changed his last name from Jeffs to symbolize his new beginning — grew up in the insular FLDS community, in which his father was the “prophet.”
In the FLDS community in Colorado City, on the Utah-Arizona border, his father married off couples — some of whom were children, according to court records and media reports. When police began investigating the rape of a minor in the community, Jeffs became wanted as an accomplice in the abuse.
To avoid law enforcement, Jeffs built the “Yearning for Zion Ranch” — a massive FLDS compound in a remote part of Texas, according to court records.
There, Jeffs took on dozens of additional wives, as young as 12 years old. Jeffson said he grew up in a home as large as a hotel with more than 50 siblings.
Jeffson said the children woke up at 5 a.m. each day to help make breakfast and clean up before they were sent into the fields. He said kids as young as 4 would pick weeds in the gardens, where they’d stay until being called in to prepare lunch. Then it would start over, he said.
“There was no music, no internet, no TV, no movies, nothing of that nature,” Jeffson said.
Accounts of life in FLDS first came to light in the mid-2000s when law enforcement raided the ranch, and stories of people leaving the community have been widely published in local and national media, and documentaries, in the years since.
In 2006, Jeffs was arrested on sex crime charges and from then on led the church from his cell, his son and other members have said.
He is previously serving a life sentence. A previous lawyer for Jeffs wasn’t immediately available to comment.
Jeffson said with every passing year, his father’s paranoia grew — and so did the punishments he handed down to women and children in the community.
He said some people — including his mother — were sent away to live in isolation, cut off from communicating with their families.
Others, like him, were sent away to work.
Before Jeffson’s 16th birthday — while most boys his age are in school and spending time with friends — he said he had already worked two years in construction.
At 14, he said he was working at Par 2 Contractors. While working there, he said he began construction work at a Holiday Inn on Crosby Wy Street in St. George, Utah. Par 2 Contractors, based in Hilldale Utah, was owned at the time by a prominent FLDS family. Members of this family had already been cited in 2007 in allegations of violating child labor laws at its predecessor company Paragon Contractors, according to the Department of Labor and court records.
Then he said his father’s brother sent him to work for a different company based in Hilldale — Reliance Electric — where he worked as an electrician on the building site of a Residence Inn and a Holiday Inn in Hillsboro, Oregon.
He said he also did work on the sites of private homes of members of the FLDS.
Being tall helped Jeffson blend in on construction sites, but he said bosses were still careful not to put his name on documents.
While minors can hold some forms of employment in the US, federal labor laws prohibit anyone under 18 from working in hazardous jobs like construction.
By the time Jeffson was working in construction, several construction companies that were owned or operated by FLDS members — including Reliance — had already been found in violation of child labor laws.
In 2015, the Department of Labor found that Reliance employed eight children as young as 8 in Utah and Oklahoma. Five of the minors, who were under 14, were working in construction — including a 13-year-old who operated a forklift, according to the Department of Labor.
Reliance Electric was found not to have paid any wages to five of these children and under-paying 56 other employees and was fined $376,300.
Jeffson said he was aware that the company was already in trouble with the government, and was worried it would be his fault if the company was found in violation again.
“I wasn’t allowed to tell anybody I was under 18. In fact, I was told to tell people I was 19 as an electrician,” Jeffson told Insider. “I had one person ask me for my ID. I kind of just wiggled out of the situation. I was too young to have a driver’s license.”
Jeffson said that while working at Reliance Electric, the men and boys would “pack into” a rental home. He said they’d wake up between 5 and 6 a.m., go to work, get home at 8 or 9 p.m., and go to bed. Then they’d start over the next day.
“There wasn’t a lot of life outside of work,” Jeffson said. “Work was really all that we knew and they had designed it that way to keep us from going out on weekends. We just worked weekends. They did it to keep us from exploring the outside world.”
Jeffson’s mother, Vicki Thompson, told Insider that the church gave her very little information about her son’s work during those years and they weren’t allowed to speak.
“I was definitely surprised when I learned he was doing a lot of the bigger equipment,” she said. “Although he’s a bigger boy, he’s tall, and I knew he was capable, but I didn’t know if he was mature enough.”
Thompson said it was common practice for the church leadership, like Jeffs, to just call up companies owned by members of the church and tell them who would go off to work for them.
At the time Wendell Jeffson was sent away, Thompson believed a lot of these companies were being especially careful not to hire children under the legal working age because they had already been found responsible for child labor in the past.
At the end of the day, though, if Warren Jeffs or others told business owners they were sending over new employees, that was understood as an order from the church, she said.
Today, the Reliance Electric website lists Nephi Allred — a prominent member of the FLDS — as president and CEO.
On a “projects” page, it lists hotels around the US that the company worked on. It includes Hilton, Holiday Inn, Fairfield Inn, Hampton Inn, and Residence Inn hotels.
Reliance Electric didn’t respond to Insider’s requests for comment.
In August 2021, a federal judge in Utah appointed Wayne Klein as a receiver for Paragon Contractors Corp. and Par 2 Contractors, LLC after the owner of the companies failed to pay more than $800,000 in back wages to employees, according to court documents.
Klein, an officer of the court, told Insider in early May that he remains the receiver of all the assets belonging to the companies and is working to sell them off.
He said the companies tied to the FLDS are very complicated to handle because of the lack of cooperation from those involved.
“It took the department of labor 12 years to actually collect on this. They spent years and years just doing enforcement actions and trying to get them to respond,” Klein said.
Klein said he became aware of several hotel construction sites tied to Paragon or Par 2 because he was trying to find equipment that he could sell off.
Working to support the leadership
Jeffson said members of the FLDS are hard workers and rarely complained because they believed the rules they were made to follow and the work they were told to do was in service to the church and God.
He said the children working for companies owned or operated by FLDS members didn’t get paid, and that most adults earned low wages.
It was understood among members that the profits from these companies went to the church, Jeffson said.
“They were like, ‘Well, the church probably needs it more than I do,'” he said. “Then, obviously, the Jeffs family was taking in all that money and doing whatever they wanted with it. So they were living a really high elite lifestyle while there was a majority of the FLDS people that were out there working 12- to 16-hour days on these jobs.”
Jeffson said that when he was growing up as a son of Jeffs he benefited greatly from the tithing of his father’s followers. If his family wanted something, they made a request, and — as long as it was something allowed under the cult’s restrictive lifestyle — it was granted.
“We had multimillion-dollar homes that we were living in. These homes were 10,000 square feet plus. And every year, when a new vehicle would come out, we would go buy the brand new vehicle,” Jeffson said. “We didn’t really have any perception of how much it took to earn enough money to buy something like that. If we wanted it, we got it. We were very privileged.”
It wasn’t until Jeffson was cast out, he said, tha he started to understand the value of money.
At 16, Jeffson said he finally started earning a paycheck — cash that was paid off the books — while working at another FLDS-owned company in Denver, Colorado.
“It was a low wage, but it was better than no wage,” he said.
By the time he turned 18, Jeffson said he had already had five construction gigs, including work as a welder.
It was around then that he, his mother, and his sister decided to leave the FLDS community.
Jeffson said that a silver lining to the exploitation is that he was able to use the skills he acquired in the jobs he was made to work as a kid to earn a living when he left the FLDS. With income from new construction gigs, he rented a home for his family.
Now Jeffson is engaged, living in Guatemala, and working in the insurance industry.
He also appeared in the new Peacock true-crime series, “Preaching Evil: A Wife on the Run with Warren Jeffs.”