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California and the West | CALIFORNIA ALBUM

Advocates Seek to Guard Shepherds From Exploitation

Hearings: Industrial Welfare Commission will examine plight of low-paid immigrants who are exempt from minimum wage laws.


LOST HILLS, Calif. — Here in the middle of nowhere, amid a near-suffocating wave of triple-digit heat, a lone man in a straw hat and ragged clothes watches more than 800 sheep graze on a patch of desert brushland.

A guest worker from Peru, the shepherd has been on the job for nearly three years and says he hasn't had a day off since he arrived.

His home is a rundown trailer that buzzes with flies and has no air conditioning or running water. His toilet consists of a shovel that his employer gave him to bury his excrement.

"I am counting down to the hour and the minute of each day left before I can go home," said the shepherd, who asked that his name not be used for fear of angering his employer.

Advocates for the worker say that his story is typical of those for the estimated 400 to 1,000 shepherds in California who fall into a little-known group of employees exempt from earning the minimum wage.

The wage issue has put the shepherds at the forefront of a movement to examine and, perhaps in some cases, eliminate such exemptions. Other exceptions include baby-sitters, traveling carnival ride operators and Hollywood actors, but the shepherds are particularly low-profile.

"Basically, what you have here is an industry that hasn't changed in 150 years," said Chris A. Schneider, executive director of Fresno-based Central California Legal Services. "The sheepherders are in a black hole, in that they don't even get the same protections farm workers have."

California is the nation's second-largest producer of sheep and lamb, according to one industry group. One of the biggest concentrations of shepherds in the state is believed to be in Kern County, about 90 miles north of Los Angeles.

How shepherds came to be declared exempt remains unclear. In recent weeks, officials with the state's Industrial Welfare Commission have been poring through old meeting transcripts and other documents to determine when the shepherds and other workers were originally made exempt and why.

Schneider said most of California's shepherds travel from Peru and a smaller number from Chile under a federal guest worker program. The wage exemption, he said, allows some ranchers to take advantage of the shepherds by requiring them to work around the clock with no days off for a monthly salary of about $800, plus room and board.

The monthly salary for shepherds is set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and was recently raised to $900 a month, said Pandora Wong, branch chief of the Alien Certification Unit for the U.S. Department of Labor. The workers are paid monthly salaries, as opposed to hourly wages, because they are on call 24 hours a day, Wong said.

An employee earning the state minimum wage of $5.75 would be paid $920 for working four, 40-hour weeks. But ranchers, according to Schneider, often note that the shepherds would probably earn only $120 a month in Peru.

Representatives of the Western Range Assn., which imports the workers from foreign countries, did not respond to repeated requests for comment. Officials with the California Wool Growers Assn. could not be reached.

The matter is expected to come before the state Industrial Welfare Commission today in Sacramento. The commission has two labor representatives, two employer representatives and a public member.

"I think [sheepherders] fit the classic out-of-sight, out-of-mind category," said Douglas H. Bosco, a former U.S. congressman who serves as the commission's public member. "They don't speak English. They don't have natural allies or communications with people who can help them. So they get forgotten."

Bosco said a closer examination of the shepherds' situation could show that they should not have remained exempt from the minimum wage after the 1996 passage of Proposition 210, which raised the state's minimum wage. If so, they could be owed back wages.

"I think it's clear virtually everyone has dropped the ball on this," Bosco said. "Whether it be housing, transportation, health care or minimum wage . . . they fall below every major category that we generally think of as necessary for survival of people."

A report released earlier this year by Central California Legal Services found that the vast majority of the 41 shepherds surveyed worked straight through the year with no days off.

Schneider said it is common for ranchers to contend that the shepherds are merely on call for much of the day. The shepherds, however, say they are working around the clock, not only because they must guard the sheep but also because they are rarely permitted to leave their campsites.

Although some shepherds were permitted to shop and eat out, only a few reported participating in leisure activities, such as watching a video, going to a park or attending a fiesta, according to the survey. None had been to a church or a library.

Nearly half of the workers said they had been injured or fallen ill while at work, but only about one-third reported having received medical treatment.

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