Colorado Sheepherders Get Wage Hike in New U.S. Department of Labor Rule

Sheepherders in Colorado and across the United States will get a pay raise from the minimum wage of $750 a month to $1,508 a month. The U.S. Department of Labor is set to publish the final rule today, Oct. 16.

The new wage is less than the initial department proposal released in April, which would have increased wages for Colorado sheepherders to $2,441 a month by 2020 using a different method of calculating the minimum wage. Ranchers told Rocky Mountain PBS I-News that that proposed wage would drive many of them from the business.

The final wage rule is based on the $7.25 federal minimum wage and an estimated sheepherder workweek of 48 hours (multiplied by 4.333 weeks in a month).

Many churches and advocates for immigrants and workers approved of the more substantial proposed increase. But, an overwhelming number of the more than 500 comments the department received were negative, often predicting the destruction of family-run ranches and demise of local communities.

Sheep industry representatives, Mountain Plains Agricultural Service and Western Range Association, submitted counter-proposals to raise the wage as high as $1,393 a month by 2020. The final proposed rule is more closely aligned with that figure.

In pre-published version of the final rule, the Department of Labor said that increasing the wage three times, as proposed in some states including Colorado, would damage the sheep industry and force some operations out of business.

“We recognize that after decades of the status quo, in which there was no change to the rules governing these industries, the current modernization effort can have a broad impact, and we have made adjustments to the 11 proposed provisions … with these interests in mind, as well as those of the employees.”

The Centennial-based American Sheep Industry Association said the new rule provided an opportunity for many businesses to remain viable.

“We will lose some operations but not most as was the case with the April proposal,” executive director Peter Orwick wrote in an email.

Worker advocates say the rule is a first step, but still falls short. The new wages don’t go into effect for two more years, to give the industry time to transition. Sheepherders need higher pay more urgently, said Ricardo Perez, executive director of the Hispanic Affairs Project of Western Colorado.

“Sadly, we don’t have the capacity to change the way the industry treats the foreign workers, but at least, increasing the salary in a fair level, is a legal way to compensate the hard life of the workers,” he wrote in an email.

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