CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) — Two former shepherds from Peru are accusing key players in the sheep industry in the western U.S. of conspiring to keep wages low for foreign workers.
Rodolfo Llacua and Esliper Huaman, represented by a Denver law firm called Towards Justice, are seeking to have their lawsuit treated as a class-action case seeking damages for current and former shepherds across the West.
The lawsuit, filed this week in U.S. District court in Denver, targets the Salt Lake City-based Western Range Association and Casper, Wyoming-based Mountain Plains Agricultural Service. The companies place foreign workers with sheep operations. The lawsuit also names eight sheep-ranching operations around the West as defendants.
For decades, the federal government has endorsed ranchers bringing in foreign shepherds to oversee vast herds in western states on the grounds that U.S. citizens wouldn't take the jobs. They are called "H2-A" workers after the federal labor program.
Between 2,000 and 2,500 H2-A workers are in the country, handling nearly all of the shepherd work that sustains the roughly $275 million annual sheep industry in the West, the lawsuit states.
The herders, many from South American countries such as Peru, work for wages as low as $750 a month. They commonly work seven days a week and up to 12 hours a day for months on end. They live in trailers or tents without plumbing or electricity, the lawsuit states.
"The amount they paid us never seemed right," Huaman said in a statement released by his lawyers. "Many fellow shepherds are still suffering under these low wages, and I hope that I can help benefit them through this complaint."
Llacua and Huaman say in their lawsuit that the Western Range Association and Mountain Plains Agricultural Service, as well as ranchers who hire foreign workers through them, violated anti-trust laws by colluding to keep wages at the minimum levels required by the federal government.
"We think that people working as shepherds should be fairly compensated, pursuant to regular market forces," said Nina DiSalvo, executive director of Towards Justice. Huaman is now working in Utah, while Llacua is in Colorado, she said.
Stung into action recently by an earlier lawsuit brought by U.S. sheepherders who claimed the foreign worker program was keeping wages artificially low, the U.S. Department of Labor early this year proposed a new rule that would ramp up pay for the herders up to $2,400 a month by 2020.
In that earlier lawsuit, the U.S. herders argued that the Labor Department for years had operated essentially in a closed-loop system. They said the agency surveyed sheep ranchers to find out how much they paid their herders, and then — without seeking comment from anybody else — certified that it was appropriate for ranchers to continue to pay foreign herders at those low rates because no American workers were willing to take the jobs.
The federal agency's wage-hike proposal brought stiff criticism from the grazing industry and politicians in the West, with many asking to delay any change. Egan Reich, spokesman for the Labor Department in Washington D.C., said Wednesday that the agency intends to publish its final rule Nov. 1.
Kelli Griffith, executive director of Mountain Plains Agricultural Service, said Wednesday her company and its member ranchers have participated in the H2-A program for more than 25 years.
"They're experienced and diligent about complying with all their legal obligations," Griffith said of the ranchers who hire herders through Mountain Plains. "They really appreciate the hard work and all of the dedication of their employees. And these allegations — they are just allegations — they won't be taken lightly by the association."
Ellen Winograd, a lawyer in Reno, Nevada, represents the Western Range Association. She said Wednesday the company also will investigate the allegations of Llacua and Huaman.
"But because the Dept. of Labor and the H2-A visa program are so highly regulated at both the state and federal levels, it's difficult to imagine a scenario in which there can be any anti-trust violations because prevailing wages within the H2-a visa program are set by regulation and by statute," Winograd said.