Sheepherders – mostly immigrant guest workers from South America on H2-A visas – aren’t subject to minimum wage like other farm workers.
Instead their wages are set 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.”
However, 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.