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The Job No Americans Want Isn't Getting Any Easier

By Evelyn Nieves
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 3, 2006

MENDOTA, Calif. -- The seven sheepherders were eating lunch in a trailer with no toilet, heat or water, its leaky roof held down by a rope.

A lunch break, especially one together, was a rare event. But they were celebrating, sort of. Lambing season was ending. That's when the ewes give birth and the sheepherders who come to this country on three-year work visas put in their hardest 12- to 16-hour days, seven days a week.

Still, the sheepherders were steeling themselves for spring. From late March until fall, sheepherding is almost unbearably lonely. Each herder is driven deep into pastures far from town or even a paved road. For weeks on end, he sees no one but the boss, and rarely does he have a cellphone or radio.

In the list of jobs immigrants perform that no U.S. citizen wants, sheepherding must rank near the top. The 825 or so sheepherders who work the nation's sheep farms -- mostly in California, Texas and Wyoming -- are immigrants here on H-2A visas from Peru, Chile, Bolivia and Mexico, according to the Western Range Association, an industry group.

Their lot was supposed to change, at least in California. In 2001, the state legislature passed a law imposing new labor standards for sheepherders. They were to have adequate housing, with toilets, heat and potable water. They were to get graduated raises, from $800 to $1,300 a month at present, and they were to get vacation. But in March 2005, a report by Central California Legal Services, a Fresno-based legal aid group, found that little had changed.

Chris A. Schneider, executive director of Central California Legal Services, began monitoring the sheep ranches in 1990. He wrote his first comprehensive report on the sheepherders' plight in 2000, after unsuccessfully trying to get federal minimum wage laws to apply to herding.

He checks the camps regularly. The other day, after waiting weeks until the winter valley fog that makes it impossible to find the sheep farms had lifted, he set again to find sheepherders in the vast farmland of the San Joaquin Valley.

Schneider had hoped that the publicity surrounding last year's report (which found that 91 percent of sheepherders' trailers had no toilet) would embarrass the ranchers into complying with the law -- or prompt the state Employment Development Department (EDD), which inspects the sheepherders' living quarters, to step up scrutiny.

Instead, he found sheepherders using shovels to bury their waste. Old water jugs, some lined with mold, provided for their drinking, bathing and cooking. Trailers were powered by car batteries.

"I'm concerned that I don't see any real desire on the part of the agencies who are supposed to enforce this to carry this out," Schneider said.

In December, Paul Koretz, the Democratic assemblyman from West Hollywood who wrote the 2001 law, had written to the EDD, asking what it was doing to implement the legislation.

In its response last month, the agency, whose director had left the job, said it recently updated its inspection forms to comply with the 2001 law. But inspectors were still allowing ranchers to certify the conditions of the camps and trailers. On the occasions inspectors went, they were led to the camp by the rancher (out of deference to his private-property rights). When a violation was found, the rancher would send written notification that the problem had been corrected.

Koretz said that based on the response to his questions, he is "considering calling for oversight hearings into the inadequate implementation of the law."

Sheepherders say that the richest country in the world can do better by its guest workers. "We did not expect this deprivation," said a sheepherder who has worked for the same Mendota rancher for 15 years.

He, like the six others interviewed, spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of angering his employer. The boss had stopped talking to them, they said, after a dispute over back wages. And he had already threatened to send one or more of them to Wyoming, where the sheepherders make $650 a month and endure brutal winters.

In Wyoming, where the obscure, hard life of sheepherding got some attention in the film "Brokeback Mountain," sheepherders have been going AWOL. It has become such a problem that legislators are considering a proposal by the Wool Growers Association that would make it a criminal offense to hire away a herder.

That is starting to happen more in California. Three sheepherders recently left the Mendota ranch, and at least one of the seven interviewed, an 18-year-old herder, said he was seriously considering doing the same.

"I thought everything in the United States would be the best," said the young man, whose plywood trailer is maybe 7 feet by 10 feet.

The Western Range Association lobbied against the 2001 law, saying it would bankrupt a shrinking industry. Its president and spokesman could not be reached to discuss the lack of compliance. He was in Peru, recruiting sheepherders.

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