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The West’s foreign sheep herders get a raise

Since the ’50s, states have offered them few benefits

On a windy, treeless plain that spans the Colorado-Utah border, César Momouy Balca lives most of the year in a 12-foot trailer miles from the nearest town. A Peruvian sheepherder, native of the high Andes near Lake Titicaca, he has spent most of the last decade in places like this, alone except for some dogs and a horse, caring for thousands of sheep.

“The work is good,” says Momouy Balca, 50, who is nearing the end of his third three-year contract. But he misses his wife and three daughters, who live back in Peru. “It’s sad,” he says, “being alone so much.”

Momouy Balca is here because of a program that allows sheep ranchers to bring in foreign herders, mostly from Latin America, to oversee their flocks under temporary “H-2A” work visas for three years at time. More than 1,600 sheepherders working in nine Western states participate in the program, living in primitive tents or trailers, watching over thousands of animals on vast areas of public land across the West. For decades, federal regulations have set their wages in most states at $750 a month — only $100 more than they were in 1965.

Now, thanks to lawsuits filed by Colorado and Utah activists, Momouy Balca and his fellow herders will finally get a pay raise. Late last year, the Department of Labor released a new rule increasing shepherd pay to $1,200 per month, rising to $1,500 by 2018. But some activists question whether the change goes far enough. The new rules do nothing to address worker abuses in the industry, including the many ways in which sheepherders are treated differently from other ag workers, says Nina DiSalvo, the executive director of Towards Justice, a Denver-based legal aid nonprofit. DiSalvo calls the salary increase “woefully inadequate.”

Until World War II, most of the West’s sheepherders were Americans, but by the early 1950s, the industry could no longer recruit enough citizens to do the tedious and difficult work. In 1952, Congress enacted the H-2A program to help all farmers and ranchers secure a reliable supply of foreign workers. But sheep and goat herders were exempted from many of the protections granted by law to most other foreign agricultural workers, such as an hourly wage and access to running water and a toilet.

The sheep industry argues that those exceptions are necessary because of the job’s unique requirements. While herders may actually tend to the animals only once or twice a day, they are technically on the job around the clock, and paying them hourly would put many small ranchers out of business, says Peter Orwick, executive director of the American Sheep Industry Association. “We can’t afford to just triple wages,” he says, noting that the sheep industry is one of the few agricultural sectors that does not receive government subsidies through the Farm Bill.

That’s partly why, when the Department of Labor released its initial proposal for raising wages last spring, ranchers like Rex Tuttle, a fourth-generation Colorado rancher, balked. The new rules would have tripled pay to $2,400 a month by 2020, along with other requirements. Ranchers claimed those changes would make it impossible for them to hire H-2A workers. For Tuttle, who runs 8,000 sheep in Moffatt County, the new salary increase will be tough to absorb financially. A lot depends on wool and lamb prices, he says. “But I’m not saying they (the shepherds) don’t deserve it.”

Still, activists argue that in releasing its final rule, the Department of Labor caved in to pressure from woolgrowers. The salary increase was partly based on the average number of hours sheepherders work per week. Ranchers stated the average was 43 hours — far fewer than the 70 hours claimed by 81 percent of Colorado sheepherders in a recent survey by Colorado Legal Services. Activists are pushing to strengthen protections for sheepherders through two lawsuits, one against the ranchers, alleging the industry colluded to keep wages artificially low, and the other against the federal government, saying that even with the pay raise, wages are still so low that the industry can rely on H-2A workers instead of Americans – in violation of federal law.

With the new rules, sheepherders like Momouy Balca will still be making roughly $3 per hour less than all other H-2A agricultural workers without ever collecting overtime pay or benefits. It’s still better money than what he would make in Peru, he says. But every so often, he would like to leave the sheep and go into town. He has 15 days of vacation per year written into his contract, but restaurants are expensive, and even the cheapest hotel is more than he can afford — let alone a ticket back to Peru for a short visit. So mostly he stays here.

On a snowy day in January, Momouy Balca looks across a sea of white from the small window inside his trailer, equipped with a small kitchen. He’s nearing the end of his third H-2A contract. When it’s over, he’ll return to Peru to see his family for the first time in three years. After a few months with them, he plans on coming back to the U.S. for one more contract. Then, Momouy Balca says he’ll return home for good: “I’ll be finished with this life.”

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