Sheepherders have always been exempt from traditional state hourly minimum wage and hourly pay overtime requirements due to the distinctive nature of the remote, nomadic work—but not anymore. This comes at a time when wildfire prevention is a high priority in California, in which grazing plays a vital role in many communities.
Under provisions of AB 1066, a bill signed into law by Governor Brown on September 12, 2016, followed by an amended wage order in January 2019, the state’s sheepherders are now subject to overtime wages, according to changes made by the California Department of Industrial Relations (DIR).
This new wage order was modified without a comment period or industry input from organizations such as the California Wool Growers Association (CWGA) and others almost three years after it was signed and became law.
“We were caught off guard and believe this is an unintended consequence that should be rectified due to the long-standing state and federal recognition of the unique nature of sheepherding,” said Andree Soares, treasurer of the CWGA.
She said sheepherding is regarded as an occupation where workers live near and follow grazing animals from place to place, making it very difficult – if not impossible – to verify the amount of time worked. There are no time clocks to punch, and no supervisors present to verify hours. This is why a monthly minimum salary is already required on a state and federal level with built-in annual escalators. Sheepherders working in California and Oregon are already the highest-paid sheepherders in the country.
According to Soares, sheep industry leaders say the new wage rules will immediately result in a 119% increase in sheepherder compensation – an increase not seen in any other ag-related job categories. This would bring California’s sheepherders to a compensation level more than twice what is paid to similar workers in 11 other sheep and wool-producing states.
The downside impact of this bill could price producers out of this food and fiber market. Some say higher operating costs could force many to relocate to other states where they would not be at a competitive disadvantage. Several producers are already saying they might be willing to sell out or leave.
“We were surprised to find that the sheepherder exemption from overtime wages previously allowed in federal and state policies was left out of AB 1066,” said Dan Macon, president of the CWGA. “We operate within a unique industry. There is no replacement for humans working to care for and protect sheep from predators, providing on-site first aid and rescuing them from entanglements or when they are lost at locations far from home and a producer’s headquarters. We are optimistic and hope common sense will prevail when it comes to modifying this law.”
Macon said this bill will also influence the cost of feed, availability of veterinary care as well as other supply-chain related factors for 70% to 80% or more of producers.
Sheepherders are mostly workers who come to California from Peru with H-2A visas for three, one-year contracts. Their expenses are almost zero and they typically send most of their money home to support families, buy land, purchase their own herds and establish businesses.
In California, this new requirement would see monthly salaries for sheepherders go from $1955 a month to $4,286 a month. In addition, sheepherders receive monthly mandatory benefits including free housing (estimated at $450), meals ($300) and mobile communications devices ($50). Collectively, these benefits average about $800 per month. Other mandated benefit costs associated with H-2A herders include $1,000 in annual administrative fees.
Access and use of producer-owned vehicles are also included in a number of cases. Producers also must provide transportation for H-2A workers to and from their home countries. Furthermore, sheepherders are eligible to receive medical care at personal expense through Covered California.
Today, California is the second-largest sheep producing state in the U.S., after Texas. It is the number one wool producer with 550,000 sheep, 500 family sheep operations, many of which are owned by minorities, women and veterans, and approximately 375 sheepherders.
“If California sheep producers are forced out of business, these workers and their families will also suffer,” Soares said. “Sheep and producers may leave the state, but California wildfires that kill people and destroy property will still occur here.”
AB 1066 became law at a time when wildfires were causing widespread devastation due in large part to a buildup of ground fuel loads.
“Sheep have been removing 700 million pounds of vegetation annually on 300,000 acres of California rangelands and wooded areas that could otherwise become fuel for wildfires,” Soares added. “In addition, the use of sheep also replaces the need to use chemical herbicides and fossil fuels that might also trigger new fires while harming the environment.”
She said what these grazing animals do to help reduce fire threat has been invisible. Now with targeted grazing, approximately 39 California cities in 34 counties are deploying sheep and goats to remove debris and minimize wildfire risk in areas where mechanized cutting would be impossible.
“If California sheep producers are forced out of business, what will happen to fire prevention grazing programs such as these?”
CWGA is working closely with the Legislature and the Office of the Governor to seek a sheepherder exemption amendment to AB 1066.
“We’ve met with key state legislators in a series of one-on-one meetings to inform them on what is at stake and to develop a strategy. There is support for what we are doing and our task now is to amend the law this year as soon as possible,” Soares added.