As Shepherds See Higher Wages, Ranchers Adapt
Wyoming’s sheep industry relies on foreign labor from the Department of Labor’s H2-A visa program, which applies to agricultural jobs. When that agency raised wage requirements for sheepherders in 2015, ranchers complained that the rule change could put them out of business. But worker’s advocates argued that the new regulations were not enough. Wyoming Public Radio’s Alanna Elder met with a rancher and a shepherd just after the latest round of raises went into effect.
Rancher Bill Taliaferro drove me to his land near Kemmerer, where the shepherds he hires usually spend the winter. When we pulled up to the house, two pairs of boots were sticking out from underneath the foundation, and voices were calling in Spanish. Taliaferro’s son-in-law and 44-year-old herder Lorenzo Salazar had been trying to fix a plumbing problem.
“I have to unfreeze the pipes – they broke after the water froze,” Salazar said. “Right now, there isn’t much work to do with the sheep, because of all of the snow.”
Salazar has worked for the Taliaferros on and off for fourteen years, and even with the cold and the solitude, he says he likes the work. He sends most of his paycheck home to his wife and four children. Since last year’s raise, he’s had an easier time meeting the family’s expenses.
“I have to make money for their schooling,” Salazar said. “When I had the other salary, I needed more for my kids – I wasn’t paying enough.”
Taliaferro plans on hiring two more shepherds in the spring, but he worries that he and other ranchers will have trouble covering their costs if lamb prices don’t go up.
Wyoming’s sheep producers earn some income from wool production, but they mostly depend on selling lambs to feedlots or slaughterhouses. Prices for both of those commodities have been slumping for a long time, and people have been shrinking their herds.
“We used to run 14,000 sheep on the open range. We can’t do it anymore.”
The family is scaling back, and looking for new ways to make money. Taliaferro plans to keep using the H-2A program, but he sees the new regulations as part of a shift that’s coming in the industry, driving ranchers to switch to on-farm flocks of a couple hundred sheep, which they can raise without herders.
“But then you have to have wheat or corn or something else to sell,” Taliaferro said. “Because the lambs from 200 aren’t going to keep a family alive for a year. The industry’s just gonna change, and if you can’t make money doing something, maybe you go to recreation, or if you have to, you sell the ranch.”
But Nina DiSalvo, a lawyer with the Denver-based firm Towards Justice says that since shepherds in some states like Maine and North Dakota have earned between 10 and 12 dollars an hour, Western ranchers should be paying more.
“It seems counterintuitive to subsidize the ranchers that are not as efficient, and therefore believe themselves to be unable to pay their workers a reasonable wage,” DiSalvo said.
DiSalvo is representing shepherds in four separate lawsuits, including a case against the DOL over the recent rule changes.
The H-2A program includes a separate set of regulations for range jobs, because herders spend months on the range, often without access to running water or electricity. Ranchers say that since they purchase food and clothing for their workers, and shepherds are on-call for 24 hours a day while looking after sheep, it’s just not feasible to pay them an hourly wage. So, this most recent set of “special procedures” for sheep, goat, and livestock herding set shepherd salaries at minimum wage for a forty eight hour work week. DiSalvo says the DOL is out of line, because that’s much less than the workers she represents actually work.
Towards Justice is also suing the Department of Homeland Security, which issues the visas. Under the special procedures, herders are allowed to stay in the U.S. for three years before they have to reapply. That’s longer than the standard for most H-2A workers.
“They purport to create an H-2A visa for shepherds that is meant to bring foreign labor into this country to meet a permanent labor shortage,” DiSalvo said, “whereas the H-2A program was created to address temporary or seasonal labor shortages.”
DiSalvo says that distinction matters because herders would benefit from permanent visas available through other programs.
“They would be able to bring their families; they would be able to establish their lives, and not always be in sort of strange, fluctuating visa status,” DiSalvo said.
The way she sees it, that permanent labor shortage exists because wages have been slouching for so long. Last year’s raise was the first shepherds had seen in nearly two decades, and DiSalvo says that stagnation has scared Americans out of herding jobs.
“There just aren’t any,” DiSalvo said. "There aren't any more. Because they make between two and four dollars an hour."
Rancher Taliaferro agrees that there aren’t Americans applying to be shepherds, but instead of wages, he blames the tough conditions of the job, and a changing culture.
“It’s tough to find young Mexicans who want to come over,” Taliaferro said. “I mean, they like to go to the movies, and they like to go out on Saturday nights. They don’t want to be out there, stuck in a sheep wagon. But I guess they don’t need the work.”
Sheepherder Salazar says he does need the work – in the spring, he’ll head out onto the range, and he won’t be back for seven months. He first learned to herd sheep near El Paso, Texas, and after so much time working for the Taliaferros, he says he knows everything about this job.
For now, ranchers will have to pay more for that expertise.