WASHINGTON, Oct. 14, 2015 - Many sheep herders are going to get a raise, potentially doubling their wages in some states, under new federal standards for foreign workers. 

As steep as some of the increases will be, the required new wages won’t be as high as the Labor Department had originally proposed this spring and that ranchers said threatened to put many operations out of business. 

The new standards, to be published in the Federal Register on Friday, also softened some other provisions in the original proposal issued in April. 

The proposed regulations “would have tripled the wages,” said Peter Orwick, executive director of the American Sheep Industry Association. “It would have put them (producers) out of business. My impression is that Labor just saw the hundreds of comments that came in that farm families wouldn’t be able to sustain it.”

Current wage requirements range from a low of $750 a month in most states, including Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, South Dakota, Texas, Utah and Washington, up to $800 in Nevada, $1,600 in California and $1,603 in Oregon. Under the department’s original proposal, wages in most of the 19 large sheep-raising states would have jumped to over $2,400 a month by 2020.

Under the finalized wage formula, wages will increase  over three years to $1,500, a more manageable level, according to Orwick.

“The largest share (of producers) will be able to live with this,” said Orwick. “Not all of them. for some operations it does double the wage and for some it probably won’t fit for them.”

The H-2A program is normally limited to farms to import seasonal help, but it has unique rules for sheep herders that date back to the 1950s. The foreign sheep herders, who come primarily from Mexico and Peru, can be used throughout the year but they are supposed to work primarily on the open range to protect the sheep. 

Do you find the information on Agri-Pulse helpful? See even more ag and rural policy news when you sign up for a four-week free trial Agri-Pulse subscription.

The Small Business Administration’s Office of Advocacy discussed the original proposal with small sheep operations in California, Colorado, Oregon, Montana, Utah, and Wyoming and reported that every one of them would either reduce production or shut down. 

The Colorado Wool Growers Association told the Labor Department the proposal was “not grounded in the market realities” of the industry.

The final rule also altered a proposed new definition of “open range.” SBA’s Office of Advocacy said that many producers would no longer qualify for the H-2A program if fences were prohibited. The final rule was tweaked, the department said, “in recognition of the fact that fences are used in many locations for many purposes,” including on lands controlled by the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. 

The department also is eliminating a proposed 20-percent limit on the number of days that that can be spent on work that’s not done on the open range but “closely and directly related to herding or the production of livestock,” such as fencing, shearing, assisting ewes in lambing, or feeding other livestock.

The Wyoming Farm Bureau Federation, among others, told the department that the 20 percent “is too low a cap given the nature of the industry.” Orwick said the 20-percent cap would have created an onerous record-keeping requirement on producers. 

The department says it stopped short of providing employers the “unlimited latitude” some of them wanted to require H-2A workers to perform any ranch duties “that are necessary to meet the day-to-day needs that arise in ranch operations.”