Overtime for Range Workers: A New Frontier

Sheepherders are at the center of a labor law controversy in California that foreshadows the changing landscape of range work in the western US.

Sheepherders are at the center of a labor law controversy in California that foreshadows the changing landscape of range work in the western US. Small sheep ranchers in California are now subject to overtime requirements. For a nomadic job requiring workers to be on-call, overtime makes little sense to many range-based operations. California Wool Growers Association is suing to reinstate the sheepherder exemption from overtime requirements.

From the earliest wage and overtime protections in the U.S., general agricultural workers were exempt. This included range and livestock workers. But even as agricultural workers on large row crop and vegetable production farms were awarded wage protection in 1966, legislators retained a blanket exemption for range livestock workers because the “computation of hours worked would be extremely difficult.

Herding on the open range is a unique aspect of agriculture, as livestock forages across what is often thousands of acres, and workers must be available to tend to the herd twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Even if herders have downtime while, for example, the herd sleeps in the afternoon shade, the workers cannot truly take personal time as they cannot leave the animals alone. Furthermore, often a worker is too remote and usually without transportation other than a horse, so getting to town to conduct business is impossible.

What is fair remuneration for such a job? In recognition of the on-call nature of the job, range workers are often paid an ‘alternative monthly minimum wage’ rather than an hourly wage. But how to compute a minimum monthly payment? Do you pay a worker for all 168 hours in a week? Or take an average of hours worked (despite the isolation and inability to travel away from the herd)? There is quite a bit of disagreement over the number of hours a week that would be used as a benchmark if the latter methodology was chosen. Herd owner advocacy groups lobby for a 48-hour week and worker’s advocates urge a 60- or 70-hour week to be used as the baseline.

In California, the current minimum monthly salary for sheepherders is $2,488.97 (if there are 25 or fewer employees). A handful of western states also have monthly rates for sheepherders:  In Oregon, it is $2,340.00 and in Colorado it is $515/week, or a little over $2,000 a month.

California has now added a complication to this ongoing battle over sheepherder compensation by removing the overtime exemption for sheepherders via Wage Order 14. Agreeing upon the average number of hours worked in a week for a sheepherder was already contentious. Now, sheep ranchers must insert overtime hours into their compensation equations.

The formula designed by the Department of Industrial Relations to do this is quite complicated, and you can read about it here if you are so inclined. The short and long of it is that California sheepherders now must pay $955.89 over and above the alternative monthly minimum wage of $2,488.97, for a total of $3,444.86 a month for employers with 25 or fewer employees.

This is a 38% increase in monthly wages. Bigger ranchers have larger increases. Many farmers say there aren’t the margins available to pay for such an uptick in labor costs.

All sheep owners in the western U.S. are paying attention to these changes. As expected, the industry is concerned about increased labor costs and is raising the alarms. In times past when sheepherder wages were increased, rancher advocates claimed that raising wages would be an “extinction scenario” for the industry (2015); or that “new regulations would kill..[the already] ailing industry”(2001). Rising labor costs were predicted to reduce grazing and thereby “increase wildfires… because of the abundance of ‘fuel’ otherwise reduced by grazing (2015).”

So far, the industry has survived despite progressively more expensive labor. Will overtime protections go too far?

Next month we will dig into how Wage Order 14 from California’s Industrial Welfare Commission excludes goats from the sheepherding alternative monthly minimum wage, even though goats and sheep are herding in nearly identical ways. Read one rancher’s concerns about this here.

For more on both sides of the issue, see this Civil Eats article.