The anglers and bikers traveling to the mountains slowed their cars to a crawl as hundreds of sheep flocked the country road north of Meeker. Ahead, a sheepherder on horseback surveyed the animals and behind them, the man’s small camper, or “campito,” was hidden by trees.
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 raised the third largest number of sheep in the U.S. this year and 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 dollars 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 is counter-proposing a pay level closer to $1,400 a month, fearing 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.
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 said 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. Last year 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.
Sheepherders in the H2-A program are the lowest paid of all temporary agricultural workers in the United States, according to the I-News analysis. 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.
In comparison, farm workers who handle bees, corn and apples, for example, 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 last year, 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 and 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.
Kourlis 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, 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.