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California’s Sheepherders at the Center of an Overtime Battle

  “Where I live, there are a lot of sheep,” said Saulo Aldazabal Inga, from Chaquiococha, Peru, of how he ended up working as a sheepherder in California. “I raised animals with my parents starting when I was a child.” Several years ago, a friend helped Aldazabal Inga get an H-2A, a temporary agricultural worker visa, to the United States. Now, he is about to finish the visa’s three-year period, during which he has been working in Lake County, California, and head home to Peru for three months. In October, he’ll return for another three years.

This next time around, however, he could make a lot more money. On January 1, 2022, California’s agricultural worker overtime pay rules went into effect for sheepherders employed by operations with 25 or fewer employees. Getting paid overtime means that this year, sheepherder pay jumped from just under $2,500 per month to about $3,400 per month, a figure that will increase incrementally to $4,500 by 2025.

“The state has all these goals to be carbon-neutral and the sheep are doing it, we just have to prove it. But it feels like they’re going to wipe out the industry before we can.”

Producers argue that the new overtime rules will devastate California’s sheep industry. The California Wool Growers’ Association (CWGA) is suing the state over the rule, arguing that it was inappropriate to include sheepherders, who have long been treated as an exceptional category by both immigration and labor law.

This isn’t the first legal clash over sheepherders’ labor. Multiple court cases in recent years have pitted herder advocates and the sheep industry against one another over wages, working conditions, and hiring processes. Just last week, sheepherders announced a lawsuit against the Western Range Association (WRA), one of two main broker agencies that assist ranchers in hiring workers, for “cartel-like wage suppression.” But the arguments of both sides coincide in some important ways: Both argue that H-2A does not adequately address the need for long-term, skilled immigrant sheepherders, and that the fights over the cost of labor are a symptom of the larger problem of the way meat industry squeezes producers to keep prices low.

From Canned Mutton to Soil Health

Most sheep ranchers will tell you that the story of the industry is one of decline. The industry is unique in agriculture in that it produces two products: lamb and wool. But after a generation of GIs had their fill of canned mutton during World War II, per capita consumption of lamb dropped precipitously—from around 5 pounds per year in the 1960s to less than one today. With that consumption down, price subsidies from the National Wool Act supported the industry.

When the Act sunsetted in 1994, remaining producers shifted their focus back to lamb—but, as in other areas of the meat industry, consolidation of meatpacking houses has kept prices too low for the industry to grow. The 5 million sheep in the U.S. today represent less than one-tenth of the 56 million in the country in 1940, and a decline by half since 1994.

Recently, California sheep producers have found a new market: ecosystem services. Supported by landowners and grants from agencies like the California Department of Forestry and Fire, targeted grazing helps achieve environmental goals such as invasive weed control, wildfire mitigation, and soil health.

“It isn’t the classic model of livestock production, where you have the same herd and feed resources year over year and change is bad,” says Lee Hazeltine, whose business, Integrazing, brings sheep and goats to graze subdivisions and open space preserves. According to Dan Macon of University of California Cooperative Extension, the number of sheep in the state has remained about the same in recent years, but there has been an uptick in operations.

A sheepherder at Kaos Sheep Outfit (Photo credit: Kaos Sheep Outfit)

This type of work has become integral to the work of Kaos Sheep Outfit, where Aldazabal Inga works. Jaime Irwin, one of Kaos’ owners, says the overtime law is coming in the midst of the sheep industry demonstrating its value to the state’s climate mitigation efforts. “Sheep in California are everywhere—vineyards, alfalfa fields, carrot fields,” she says. “The state has all these goals to be carbon-neutral and the sheep are doing it, we just have to prove it. But it feels like they’re going to wipe out the industry before we can.”

‘No Tengo Horario Fijo’—‘I Don’t Have a Fixed Schedule’

In addition to the sheep industry’s challenges in sustaining a market for its products, finding willing workers has long been a challenge. Being a sheepherder requires living in mobile housing in remote locations, and being on-call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. In 2014, there were at most 18 U.S.-citizen sheepherders in the U.S. To address this need, most producers hire immigrant workers through the H-2A guest worker program.

Currently, there are an estimated 1,500 H-2A sheepherders in the U.S., and between 300 and 400 in California. Around 80 percent of these workers come from Peru; others come from Chile and Mexico. According to Ricardo Perez, executive director of Colorado’s Hispanic Affairs Project (HAP), an organization that helps organize sheepherders, most are Indigenous and have little formal education.

In recent years, HAP has brought multiple lawsuits regarding the wages and working conditions of H-2A sheepherders, including accusations of human trafficking and wage suppression. As in the current overtime debate, a core question of those lawsuits has been just how much sheepherders work. The labor is challenging to quantify because they live on-site, are always on call, and because the work—which includes tasks such as moving sheep, caring for herding dogs, and setting up electric fencing—changes over the course of the year.

When it’s hot outside, say producers, herders work relatively few hours because they take long breaks during their morning and evening tasks to stay out of the heat. But Perez notes that during the unpredictable and complicated spring lambing season, herders’ workdays can extend to 18 or 20 hours as they help the sheep give birth.

“The work really varies by season,” explains Macon. “Over the course of the year, I’d say the average is in the 40 to 48 hours per week range.”

Bring on call 24-7 also has its challenges. “Sometimes you have to get up at night because [the sheep] break through the fence and escape,” says Ricky Romel Cerrón Porta, a sheepherder from Llamapsillon, Peru, who also works at Kaos. “You know because the dogs start barking, and the sheep make different noises, too.”

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