Foreign sheepherders in Utah divided on wages, working conditions
"I would rather work on a ranch or a farm," Mendoza said in Spanish. "I would rather be out on the mountain."
Mendoza currently works for an event company in Salt Lake City, helping to set up chairs and tables at parties.
The life of a sheepherder is taxing, Palomino said. Herders spend weeks or months living alone in tiny trailers on the range, working seven days a week without a day off and no one but the sheep and a few dogs for company.
"Psychologically, it kills you," he said.
One former sheepherder described in Spanish an extreme case of poor working conditions and mistreatment by his employer. During his four months with the rancher, he was never paid, he said, with the exception of a $350 tip he received during a shearing operation.
"The trailer had broken windows. I put bags up so I wouldn't be as cold. It didn't have a heater. There was snow. There wasn't food. At one time, they didn't bring me water. I took water from the horse," the man said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "There were so many things. Describing it is sad."
Tonia Fuller, a spokeswoman for the Utah Wool Growers Association, said complaints by foreign workers are trumped up by unnamed groups seeking to harm the sheep industry.
"There are groups trying to put ranchers out of business, so they find Peruvians to file lawsuits," Fuller said. "They're being used as tools against the ranchers."
Yucra first came to the U.S. for a temporary agriculture job in 1979. Ten years later, he joined Chad Edgington's ranch, Ace Land and Livestock, and began making a life for himself.
Yucra is now a foreman over the other sheepherders and makes $1,000 per month rather than the government-stipulated $750. He has American citizenship, a house and a year ago brought his wife from Peru to live with him. She also works on the ranch, caring for newborn lambs in the springtime.
Yucra said he has no complaints about the job, living conditions or the pay. He questions the motives of those who complain about the job or abandon their posts.
"They come here from (Peru) easily, and then they escape," he said in Spanish. "It's a lie."
The hours on the job vary by season, Yucra said, with some days demanding the herders work from sunup to sundown, while other days require only a few hours of labor. It's the nature of caring for animals, he said.
Those who accept sheepherder jobs do so knowing what the conditions will be like and what the job expectations will be thanks to a screening and interview during the application process, Yucra said.
His boss, Edgington, said it's in ranchers' best interest to treat the workers well, provide them with top-of-the line gear and encourage them to return. More than that, he said, it's the right thing to do.
"I've always felt that if you take care of them, they'll give back more to you than you have to give," Edgington said. "When they come, in theory, they want to come to America for this opportunity."
In 18 years, Edgington said he has only had one migrant worker skip out on a contract. As returning workers come back for new contracts, they bring hugs, gifts and tales of their families to share with him.
"I love these men, I really do, and I've been happy with them," he said.
Yucra complimented his employer's compliance with housing and care standards, which are verified through annual government inspections.
The Utah Department of Workforce Services facilitates the inspections, as required by the Department of Labor. Ranchers in rural areas have the option of conducting and reporting self inspections, although an in-person inspection is required by the department every three years.
Inspections include checking the housing site, water supply, restroom and bathing facilities, cooking areas, safety measures and other standards stipulated by the Operational Safety and Health Administration, Stewart said.
The Department of Workforce Services also provides an ombudsman who can take employee complaints or those filed on behalf of employees by concerned parties.
Simple violations such as missing window screens or dead batteries in smoke detectors are met with a warning and sometimes a fine or a follow-up inspection. Serious violations are handled by the Department of Labor, which is responsible for issuing fines.
"(The fine) can be like $300 for no toilet paper," Stewart said.
In the past year, Workforce Services has conducted 30 investigations of sheepherder operations in Utah, citing four violations, he said.
Retaining skilled sheepherders who have familiarized themselves with the operation is the best way to benefit ranchers, Stewart said, which is why it is important the workers have the option of a three-year contract and aren't required to spend six months outside of the U.S. between contracts.
"Experience and continuity are key to successful sheep herding because of the large, expansive grazing land that comprise most sheep operations and the necessity to care for the animals themselves," Stewart said.
Contributing: John Hollenhorst