California ag overtime: A cautionary tale for Colorado
Similar to Colorado’s SB 21-087, the so-called Farm Worker’s Bill of Rights, California sheep grower Andree Soares said ag labor overtime laws in her state are forcing the hands of sheep and wool growers who depend upon herders. With the sheepherder work week poised to be calculated at 40 hours per week, many livestock operations are leaving the state or reducing their numbers.
As wildfires across the West rage on, Soares said lawmakers have lost sight of the obvious. Grazing is efficient wildfire mitigation but running the livestock producers out of business reduces grazing, leaving the already vulnerable state open to the threat of wildfire. In a state that has experienced historic wildfires this year, the irony is not lost on Soares.
Soares is the president of Star Creek Land Stewards, a targeted grazing operation that utilizes 7,200 head of sheep and goats for wildfire mitigation. She utilizes over 7,000 head of sheep and goats in her operation and manages her father’s operation as well. As is the case across the board, she said the wool and lamb business income is far outpaced by her targeted grazing business.
Even when wildfire mitigation isn’t the main end goal, she said sheep and other ruminants on traditional operations are grazing across the state’s landscape, removing fire fuel, and have been for generations. The effectiveness of grazing as fire mitigation has been cited repeatedly, even by UC Berkeley, UC Davis, and the University of California Cooperative Extension program.
“Getting people to see and appreciate that value is hard, especially while the western states, California in particular, are on fire,” she said.
She said California Gov. Gavin Newsome and the state’s Democrats are so labor-friendly that they don’t want to see it differently. The law will impact sheepherders as part of a larger ag overtime rollout, though she said she doesn’t think lawmakers understand the unintended consequences of the overtime law on sheepherders.
In 2015 under the Obama administration, Soares said the sheepherder workweek was defined as a 48-hour workweek. Then Circuit Court Judge Merritt Garland upheld that designation and that federal precedent, she said, has been ignored. Garland, coincidentally, is the current attorney general.
“What we’re asking the state to do is to adopt that federal standard,” she said. “We’ll pay the overtime, we’re not trying to get away from overtime, but we want to pay 48, we can’t pay 168 hours a week, which is what we will have to pay.”
The first year, she expects an annual increase of $12,000 per herder, increasing annually for the next five years. For sheep and wool producers, the added labor expenses can’t be passed to consumers as she said livestock producers are price takers.
“We can’t break it into shifts and deploy another guy at hour 8 for the same reason (Colorado producers) can’t go get (their herders) once a week and take them to Walmart,” she said. “They didn’t understand it and now, in California, they’re so afraid to look like they’re piercing that law, they’re so sensitive to the labor interests in California that the politicians don’t have the fortitude to get it done.”
The vast majority of the herders in California, as in Colorado, are H-2A workers, making the state overtime laws supersede the federal program.
The message, she said, is that sheep alone (550,000 head compared to 445,000 in Colorado) consume about 700 million pounds of grass and other vegetation annually. This is without chemicals or fossil fuels and while converting carbon to high quality protein, all while reducing the threat of wildfire.
“Grazing is a benefit to the landscape that has never been quantified very well or appreciated,” she said. “Now that the state’s on fire, it just can’t go away.”
Anthony Theos is a western Colorado sheep and wool grower whose operation depends upon the Peruvian herders he hires through the H-2A program. In his business, planning and preparation are vitally important to keeping the operation profitable but he said planning around huge labor cost increases is difficult at best.
Modern sheep camps are outfitted with solar panels to run lights and to charge the rancher-supplied cell phones and portable DVD players, as well as propane and/or wood burning stoves for comfort and cooking. The nearby supply camp contains horse tack, tools, raingear, sheepdog quarters, and other supplies — including food — that are also employer-supplied.
On the three-year visas, the herders must be in Peru for a mandatory 90-day period before returning to the Theos’ ranch. Theos said they’ve had multiple contracts with their herders and they are like family, trusted with the family’s livelihood.
Under the new law, Theos said herders, or range workers, will be paid approximately $2,000 per month, which is a 30% increase, plus overtime. This is in addition to transportation, plane tickets to and from Peru, work visas, various fees that are part of the H-2A program, and other supplies.
“There comes a point where you can’t afford it,” Theos said. “Either you cut back your herd or sell your herd. Either way, your men lose. They lose their jobs, they lose the money they send back to Peru to their families.”
Theos’ great grandfather started the ranch, knowing the area was good sheep country, similar to the region he came from in Greece. A stockman, he knew sheep would thrive and he bought winter range land.
“The time, investments, and generations, and work we’ve put into building the operation and our forest permits are right there when we open our gates to go to summer range,” he said. “We’re very fortunate and we’ve invested and use the best practices to have the operation we have. To pick up and move … I don’t know where it could be. We’re close to 100 years here and the fifth generation has joined us and wants to continue what we do.”
The shearers the Theos operation depend upon also come into the U.S. through the H-2A program and are becoming more and more difficult to secure as well. Theos said he can capitalize on value-added markets, and make the best decisions possible, but can’t operate without specific labor needs being met.
“If that goes away, we’re done,” he said.
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