When Patrick and Sharon O'Toole began their ranching business on the Wyoming-Colorado border, they tended the sheep themselves. But eventually, the O'Tooles wanted to settle down and have kids, so they hired foreign ranch hands with H-2A, or guest worker, visas to work on the ranch for $750 a month.
Peruvian shepherds on guest worker visas tend thousands of sheep in Wyoming, but they only make about half of what agricultural workers elsewhere are paid.
Under the U.S. Senate's newest immigration proposal, these guest workers would receive a special exemption from minimum wage rules. The proposal has stirred disagreements between ranch owners and workers' rights advocates.
These exemptions from minimum wage and other standards help keep the lamb and wool industry in the U.S. alive, says Peter Orwick, executive director of the American Sheep Industry Association.
"Lamb is one of the very few meats that are free traded in America," Orwick says. "A lot of agriculture either has price supports or protections from imports. The U.S. sheep industry is successful without either of those."
But labor rights advocates insist that paying workers less than minimum wage is a form of government price support that comes at the expense of the workers.
One example is in California, where the sheep industry remained strong despite the state raising wages. And it's not just about money, says Valerie Schoneberger, an attorney at Legal Aid of Wyoming. Herders are also vulnerable to bad working conditions, she says.
"A lot of them make complaints about not having adequate access to medical care, not being paid according to the contract, and not being provided sufficient or adequate food or water," Schoneberger says.
Freddie Palomino came to the U.S. from Peru on a sheepherding visa but says he was employed primarily as a ranch mechanic nearly 70 hours a week. He was shocked by his living conditions on his first day on the job in Utah.
"I barely could even fit there, not even to walk," Palomino says. "Nothing was working. The fridge, nothing like that was working."
In Wyoming, working conditions continue to get worse because ranches are only inspected once every three years. Heather Ondo, who used to inspect ranches for the state of Wyoming, says she believes mistreatment of foreign guest workers is a widespread problem.
"There's not a lot of inquiry from the local community," she says. "Most people don't want to go to work seven days a week, for 24 hours a day, for $750 a month."
But talk so far hasn't led to many changes for shepherds. The low pay and most of the controversial working conditions are not addressed in the Senate bill, which is scheduled to be voted on before July 4.
LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
Debate over the immigration overhaul has found its way to the vast open spaces of Wyoming. There, Peruvian shepherds on guest-worker visas tend thousands of sheep, but they are paid about half what agricultural workers make elsewhere. The U.S. Senate's current immigration proposal offers some improvements, but it would keep the shepherds exempt from minimum wage rules. Sara Hossaini of Wyoming Public Radio has this story in today's Business Bottom Line.
(SOUNDBITE OF RANCH)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: You ready, boss?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Yeah. Vamos!
(SOUNDBITE OF SHEEP BAAING)
SARA HOSSAINI, BYLINE: At the Ladder Ranch in south central Wyoming, everyone is in a rush to shear the sheep before the lambs are born. Each herder will then follow the sheep on their migration from the forest to the high desert and back.
Antonio Basualdo Solorzano says he loves the tree-covered mountains, for the most part.
ANTONIO BASUALDO SOLORZANO: (Through Translator) Our only problem is bears. They like to eat the little lambs.
HOSSAINI: Solorzano has worked here for eight years. On his wages as a sheepherder, he's supported seven children back home in Peru. Nevertheless, the years away have taken their toll.
SOLORZANO: (Through Translator) There are times being without family, without kids, is painful.
SHARON O'TOOLE: I was teasing him because he's been married three times and he's single now.
HOSSAINI: Rancher Sharon O'Toole and her husband Pat own the Ladder Ranch.
O'TOOLE: And we were saying, Oh, Pat, I need to go to Peru to visit his family. And I said, oh, don't worry, we'll go for your next wedding.
HOSSAINI: When the O'Tooles began their business, they tended the sheep themselves. Eventually, they wanted to settle down and have kids, so they brought in guest workers. The lonely and boring days on the range are one reason many U.S. citizens don't want these jobs anymore, says Sheep Industry Association director Peter Orwick. He says exemptions from minimum wage and other standards, such as housing, are what help keep the lamb and wool industry competitive. And Orwick says the fact that almost all of its workers are here legally is unique to agriculture.
PETER ORWICK: Lamb is one of the very few meats that are free traded in America. A lot of agriculture either has price supports or protections from imports. The U.S. sheep industry is successful without either of those.
HOSSAINI: But labor advocates insist that paying workers under minimum wage is a form of government price support, one that comes at the expense of workers. And they point to California, where the sheep industry remained strong after the state raised wages to about double the going rate elsewhere.
Legal Aid of Wyoming lawyer Valerie Schoneberger says it's not just about money. Herders are also vulnerable to bad working conditions.
VALERIE SCHONEBERGER: A lot of them make complaints about not having adequate access to medical care, not being paid according to the contract and not being provided sufficient or adequate food or water.
HOSSAINI: That includes workers like Freddie Palomino, who came to the U.S. on a sheepherding visa, but says he was employed primarily as a ranch mechanic - nearly 70 hours a week. Palomino says he was so shocked by his living conditions, he asked his boss, without success, to send him home his first day on the job.
FREDDIE PALOMINO: They had sheep camps there. I barely could even fit there, not even to walk. Nothing was working - the fridge, nothing like that was working.
HOSSAINI: One of the reasons working conditions are hard to monitor is that, at least in the State of Wyoming, ranches are only inspected once every three years. Heather Ondo used to work for the State of Wyoming both doing these housing inspections and helping ranchers find shepherds.
HEATHER ONDO: There's not a lot of inquiry from the local community. Most people don't want to go to work seven days a week, for 24 hours a day for $750 a month.
HOSSAINI: Ondo says she believes mistreatment of foreign guest workers is widespread.
(SOUNDBITE OF A SHEEP)
HOSSAINI: Back at the Ladder Ranch, Solorzano says he's happy shepherds are even being considered as part of the national immigration debate.
SOLORZANO: (Through Translator) There are times I've thought a herder is so forgotten.
HOSSAINI: But talk so far hasn't led to many changes for shepherds. The low pay and most of the controversial working conditions are not addressed in the Senate bill.
For NPR news, I'm Sara Hossaini in Laramie, Wyoming.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
WERTHEIMER: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.