- Associated Press - Monday, November 9, 2015

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) - Some current and former sheepherders say the U.S. Department of Labor has folded to pressure from the American sheep industry by trimming its proposal to require raises for thousands of foreign shepherds in the West.

The federal government for decades has endorsed a program that allows sheep ranchers to bring in foreign shepherds to oversee their herds on the grounds that U.S. citizens wouldn’t take the jobs. They are called “H2-A” workers after the program that allows them into the country.

Over 2,000 H2-A workers a year participate in the program. For years, federal regulations have set their wages in Wyoming and most other Western states at $750 a month. The workers commonly work around the clock, living in tents or trailers far from towns, while ranchers cover their living and travel expenses.

In response to a lawsuit from some shepherds, the U.S. Department of Justice early this year proposed requiring raises for shepherds to $2,400 a month by 2020. Sheep industry officials and politicians around the West, including Republican Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead, protested the proposal, saying it would put many operators out of business.

The Labor Department recently released its final rule, calling for increasing shepherd pay up to the federal minimum wage, currently $7.25 an hour for a 48-hour week - over $1,500 a month - over the next few years.

Egan Reich, spokesman for the department in Washington, D.C., recently declined comment on the rule, saying the agency couldn’t comment until it goes into effect later this month.

The Hispanic Affairs Project, based in Montrose, Colorado, last week filed an amended complaint in its pending lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. challenging the Labor Department rule. The group, together with two individual shepherds, asserts that the new federal rule is improper because it would set the wage rate for H2-A shepherds below the pay rate below the $10 to $13 an hour it states other migrant agricultural workers are paid.

“This increase is good, but it’s not enough,” Ricardo Perez, executive director of the Hispanic Affairs Project, said Monday.

“We are very disappointed that still the new regulation is not fair, especially when we know that the workers are not only working 48 hours a week, most of the time they are on call 24 hours, they are working 7 days a week,” Perez said.

Alex McBean, a staff attorney in the Farm Worker Unit at Utah Legal Services, has represented sheepherders in challenging their working conditions and pay.

“For sheepherders, it’s not as favorable as the proposed rule. But it’s definitely an improvement on what they had before,’ McBean said. “A lot of sheepherders I’ve spoken to are excited for the pay increase.”

McBean noted the rule spells out what sort of work shepherds who come to the country on H2A visas may perform.

“It does allow for some work at the ranch, but it mostly makes it so that they have to keep to the range, and doing that job that really does require them to be on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” McBean said. “A lot of ranchers have used H2A workers just to do whatever they needed and haven’t really been very conscientious about keeping them in the role of a sheep herder.”

Jim Magagna, executive vice president of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, said he would commend the Department of Labor for making significant changes to the proposed rule the agency released early this year in response to public comment.

“That previous draft, had that been enacted in the form it was presented, would have forced countless people I believe out of the sheep industry,” Magagna said.

“The current rule, while there may be some challenges, I think is in general workable,” Magagna said. “There are always questions with a new rule in general on how it will be implemented, but the unworkable parts of the draft rule were amended. It does still include a significant increase in the wages for sheepherders.”

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