SALT LAKE CITY — Almost every morning for the past 23 years, Toribio Yucra of Peru has risen early to check on the sheep under his care on Utah ranges.
Yucra doesn't get vacations, and he's on call 24 hours a day for a wage most Americans would say isn't worth it. But it's a life he happily chose.
"I like working in the state of Utah because (of the) nice people and nice country," he said. "I understand working sheep. … That's the only thing I know."
Yucra lives in a small trailer provided by his employer, equipped with a few kitchen amenities and a little bit of electricity from a single solar panel. He takes in $1,000 each month, more than most foreign workers in his field, as he guides the sheep across grazing paths, treats them when they're sick and cares for their young each spring.
He speaks fondly of his job and his employer. But not all herders are happy. Others who have worked in Utah complain that their living conditions were inadequate, food was scarce and pay was poor.
Some fled from the employers who paid to bring them to the U.S., while others are now making a legal complaint to the U.S. Department of Labor, petitioning for better working conditions for future herders coming from Latin America to work on Utah's isolated ranges.
Most migrant sheepherders come from Peru or Chile, contracting to work long, lonely hours in harsh conditions for a minimum of $750 a month, most of which is sent home to their families in South America.
They are specialized in their field; most have tended sheep all their lives.
Curt Stewart, spokesman for the Utah Department of Workforce Services, said the monthly rate for sheepherders hasn't changed in "a long time."
The program has sparked debate about living conditions, treatment of workers and compensation, drawing rave reviews from some H-2A visa holders — temporary agricultural work visas — and criticism from others.
Some employers have complained that after paying to bring workers to the U.S., the men abandon their posts after only a few months to seek more gainful employment in other industries, such as the oil fields. Others take pride in seeing workers return to their ranch for several contracts.
Alex McBean, a lawyer with Utah Legal Services, has taken on a handful of cases for migrant sheepherders in the state. He is currently building a case asking the Department of Labor to allow a public comment period concerning regulations for housing and employing the foreign workers, specifically sheepherders.
McBean said he hopes public discussion is the first step toward better conditions and better pay.
A father and son from Peru are lending their testimonies to Utah Legal Services' case. Yon Palomino spent several successful years herding sheep in Utah, learning English, meeting his wife and securing American citizenship.
Palomino said his living conditions were good, food was plentiful and his employer was timely with his paycheck.
As he encountered acquaintances from his home village in Peru working on other ranches, he discovered that other herders weren't as fortunate.
The Peruvians complained about poor living conditions, insufficient clothing and bad food, all of which is supposed to be provided by the employer. Some ranchers were said to have taken passports from their foreign employees, threatening to call immigration officials at the slightest misstep, Palomino said.
"(The living conditions) are horrible," he said. "The way they live is not right."
Yon's father, Zacarias Mendoza, was one of the Peruvian herders who found himself facing unsatisfactory working conditions and pay. Nevertheless, it's the life he prefers.
"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
Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company