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Labor Dept's Wage Proposal May Roil Colorado's Sheep Industry

Joe Mahoney
Rocky Mountain PBS I-News
A sheep herder returns to his cabin near Meeker, Colo., July 14, 2015. The federal government has proposed tripling the minimum wage for sheep herders in Colorado by 2020 to $2,441 a month.

From Moffat to Alamosa counties, Colorado is a big player in the nation's sheep industry.

The animals thrive in the state's high, dry mountains. Colorado ranked third in the value of sales of sheep and goats at $87 million in 2012, the latest data available, according to a 2014 USDA fact sheet.

Sheepherders – mostly immigrant guest workers from South America on H2-A visas – are responsible for the health of the flocks, day to day. The workers aren't subject to minimum wage like other farm workers. Instead their wages are set specially by the federal government at $750 a month in Colorado, a wage that has increased by only $50 in the past 20 years for most states, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Now the sheep industry is girding itself for what it sees as a storm.

The labor department has proposed more than tripling the minimum wage in Colorado to $2,441 a month by 2020. The industry's counterproposal is a wage closer to $1,400 a month. The fear is wages any higher would upend generations-old family businesses, flooding the market with unwanted animals and sending ripples through rural economies.

"I won't be in the sheep business," second-generation Meeker-area sheep rancher Tom Kourlis said. "If these come into play I'm going to implement an exit strategy in September."

Immigrant rights groups in Colorado and across the country, and even the Episcopal Church, support the higher wages.

"This is a human rights issue," said Tom Acker, board member of the Hispanic Affairs Project, which conducts outreach to Western Colorado sheepherders.

Credit Joe Mahoney / Rocky Mountain PBS I-News
Rocky Mountain PBS I-News
Sheep rancher Tom Kourlis, right, with his son, Tom, July 14, 2015 near Meeker, Colo., says he will stop running a sheep ranch if the federal government goes forward and triples the minimum wage in the state.

A Unique Job, And Uniquely Low Pay

When mining jobs in Peru dried up, "Jose" decided to take advantage of an opportunity to come to a ranch in Moffat County and work as a sheepherder, "to give my son a better future," he said. (His name has been changed because he feared retaliation from his employer, who is not named in this story.)

Jose earns $1,000 a month. He's usually on horseback, protecting his charges from coyotes and poisonous plants, and he also helps them deliver lambs. Depending on the season, he sometimes rises at 3:30 a.m. and returns to his camper at 9:30 p.m.

"You have to be there every day – day after day – every day," he said in Spanish.

Jose thinks the current minimum wage is insufficient.

"Life in Peru is not that cheap," he said. "It's about the same if you earn $750 a month there and here, you won't save anything."

Especially, Jose said, since many herders incur debts to middlemen to apply for H2-A visa positions in the first place.

Colorado is one of the top destinations in the U.S. for immigrant sheepherders. In 2014, 338 H2-A sheepherders were certified to work in Colorado for 63 sheep ranches, according to an I-News analysis of Department of Labor data.

I-News also found that sheepherders in the H2-A program are the lowest paid of all temporary agricultural workers in the United States. Sheepherders make $750 a month in most states, including Colorado, Utah and Wyoming. Two exceptions are California, where sheepherder wages are $1,600 a month, and Oregon, where they are $1,319 a month.

Credit Joe Mahoney / Rocky Mountain PBS I-News
Rocky Mountain PBS I-News
From Moffat to Alamosa counties, Colorado is a big player in the nation's sheep industry.

Other Ag Workers Make More

In comparison, farm workers who handle bees, corn and apples can expect salaries more than twice as high. Full-time agricultural workers who are paid on an hourly basis made $10.64 an hour on average or around $1,700 a month in 2014, according to Department of Labor data.

Sheepherders must be on call up to 24-hours a day, 7 days a week, according to the H2-A employment contract.

Ranchers say sheep are unlike other livestock and caring for them is unlike other jobs. Predators strike outside business hours; sheep give birth on weekends. The flocks need constant access to new pastures.

A 2010 survey of 93 sheepherders by Colorado Legal Services, which represents sheepherders in legal disputes, found 90 percent of them worked more than 60 hours a week. Almost 73 percent responded that they had no days off during the year. Jose said his hours fluctuate on the season and demands of the job.

Tom Kourlis, the Meeker area sheep rancher, starts inexperienced herders at $750 a month, he said, and currently has some workers who earn $1,000 a month with the ability to earn $3,000 in bonuses.

"I think what I'm doing right now is reasonable, and I would argue that the people working with us think it's reasonable," Kourlis said.

On top of salaries, ranchers must provide sheepherders with food, housing, and transportation between the U.S. and their home country.

Sheepherders are also dependent on ranchers for access to medical care, communication with the outside world and even wood for heat in the winter, the Hispanic Affairs Project's Tom Acker said, which can make them easily coerced and fearful of retribution. Some ranches have been sued repeatedly for ill-treatment of workers over the years.

"All these things, I find, make this sector of the agriculture industry an embarrassment to America's contention that workers are treated right and that we abide by the law," Acker said.

Ranchers decry a public perception that vilifies their livelihood. Many say herders return to work on the same ranch year after year.

Kourlis will judge future wages against his bottom line, he said.

"If we can afford it, I'm delighted to pay it."

The Department of Labor received more than 500 comments on the proposed wage increase, and will release the final rule by November 2015.

This report appears in partnership with Rocky Mountain PBS I-News. Contact Anna Boiko-Weyrauch.

I-News is the public service journalism arm of Rocky Mountain PBS and works in collaboration with news media throughout Colorado.
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