Should sheepherders get a pay raise?

Marketplace Contributor Oct 1, 2015
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Most sheepherders in the U.S. are immigrant guest workers who are not subject to the federal minimum wage. The department of labor is looking into a pay raise. Joe Mahoney/Rocky Mountain PBS I-News

Should sheepherders get a pay raise?

Marketplace Contributor Oct 1, 2015
Most sheepherders in the U.S. are immigrant guest workers who are not subject to the federal minimum wage. The department of labor is looking into a pay raise. Joe Mahoney/Rocky Mountain PBS I-News
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Hundreds of sheep crowd a mountain road in northwest Colorado, where, like most states, the sheepherders are typically not Americans. They are immigrant guest workers on H2-A visas who are not subject to the federal minimum wage

Ignacio Alvarado came here from Chile in the ’90s to be a sheepherder and now reaches out to the herders for local community groups. Herders are required to be on call 24/7 to protect the flocks and keep them moving to new food and water.

“They work a lot of hours in the cold, wind, snow, whatever the weather. They are always with the sheep,” Alvarado said. “It’s a lot of sacrifice for little pay.”

Instead, in Colorado and many other states, the minimum wage for immigrant sheepherders is $750 a month. It’s gone up only $50 in the past two decades.

Now, the Department of Labor is proposing a pay raise. That raise is based on average farmworker wages in each state. In Colorado, that raise would be to around $2,400 a month.

The sheep industry is up in arms against the proposal.

Herders are on call 24/7 to protect the flock. Above, sheep graze outside Meeker, Colorado. (Joe Mahoney/Rocky Mountain PBS I-News)

In a nearby ranch, manager Tom Kourlis showed the camp where one of his sheepherder lives, what looks like a mini-Airstream trailer, with horses and hay parked nearby. The trailer includes solar panels, a refrigerator and a gas or propane stove, he said.

Kourlis argued that a sheepherder’s compensation includes food, water and shelter. He said the new regulations would end his family ranch and send ripples through the local economy.

“If I go out of business myself, I don’t need new trucks. I don’t need tractors, I don’t need horses, I don’t need hay, I don’t need all those things.”

Sheep industry representatives have made a counter-proposal to the Department of Labor. Raise the wage for sheepherders to around $1,400 a month for all states.

“If we can afford it, I’m delighted to pay it,” Korlis said.  

The Department of Labor will release the final rule by November.

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