Michael Jackson closes Neverland home

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Michael Jackson has closed the house on his Neverland Ranch and laid off some of the employees there but has not completely shuttered the sprawling estate, the pop star's spokesman said.

"It is public knowledge that Mr Jackson currently resides in the Middle Eastern country of Bahrain," Jackson spokeswoman Raymone K Bain said yesterday in a statement. "He therefore decided to close his house and reduce his work force."

The action came a day after state officials announced Jackson had agreed to pay his Neverland Ranch employees hundreds of thousands of dollars in back wages, avoiding a lawsuit by the California Department of Industrial Relations.

Employees who received their back pay yesterday were told they were being laid off because the state had shut down the ranch, the syndicated television news magazine "Entertainment Tonight" reported on its website last night.

But Bain indicated the ranch was still operating, at least on a limited basis. "Reports indicating that Neverland has been closed or 'shut down' for good are inaccurate," she said in her statement. A call to the ranch's manager, Joe Marcus, was not immediately returned.

Bain's statement, which did not indicate what plans Jackson has for the estate's future, concluded: "There will be no further comments regarding this matter."

California officials issued a stop-work order for the ranch last week after learning that workers compensation insurance for the 2,600-acre estate's employees had been allowed to lapse.

The order concerned animal rights activists because it included keepers of Jackson's menagerie, which at times has included elephants and a giraffe.

However, employees were permitted to keep working if they were placed on the payroll of a third party that had workers compensation coverage, officials said, adding that was the case with the animals' caretakers.

"Security is being handled by members of the Jackson family and a local veterinarian has put the animal caregivers on his payroll," the state Department of Industrial Relations said in a statement issued earlier this week.

On the back pay issue, authorities told Jackson's representatives last week they had received complaints from at least 30 workers who had not been paid since 19 December and were owed US$306,000 in back wages. Jackson also was told he would have to pay about US$100,000 in penalties.