Generous Obama Administration Gives H-2A Shepherds a Raise to $5.80 an Hour

By David North, November 6, 2015

The Obama administration, supposedly the friend of both migrants and the working man, has just given the nonimmigrant shepherds of the American West their first raise in about 20 years — they are to get $5.80 an hour plus housing (often a tent) and the materials for their meals (which the shepherds must cook for themselves), effective November 16.

In return, the shepherds watch their sheep by night, to use an old phrase, or, to use a newer one, are on duty 24/7.

One of the new rules states that if their employers can't deliver water to them, they must be equipped with handy-dandy little kits that will make the water in the nearby creek potable. That gives you an idea of their working and living conditions.

And these H-2A workers, mostly from Mexico, Peru, and Mongolia, have something else to look forward to — on January 1, 2018, they will be paid a thumping $7.25 an hour, the current minimum wage.

Thus, the author of these new rules, the Department of Labor, will keep in place a medieval workplace arrangement in which, for much of the year, the shepherds follow the sheep from the mountain valleys to the upland pastures, and back down again, living in temporary housing such as tents and trailers much of the time.

To put it mildly this is an archaic work system, kept in being only because some alien farmworkers are so desperate that they accept these terms of employment, as we described in an earlier posting.

On October 16 the Department unfurled its final rule on these wages and working conditions in an extremely detailed discussion of the comments it received and the text of the new regulations; this can be found in the Federal Register. It is 114 pages of rather small type.

To be fair, this is a raise for these workers; under the current rules they are paid $750 a month plus the room and board described. Wages are higher in California because of state legislation. For 2016, the federal pay level will increase to $1,205.47 a month, I calculate. It will go to $1,356.16 in 2017, and all the way to $1,506.84 in 2018.

The Department does not present the data in the straightforward way seen above. It talks of a 48-hour week, the $7.25 minimum wage, and defines a month as having 4.33 weeks in it. Then it says that "there will be a two-year transition to the new Adverse Effect Wage Rate [i.e., $7.25/hour] 80 percent of the full wages from the effective date of this rule through calendar 2016, 90 percent in calendar 2017, with full implementation beginning in calendar year 2018."

Forty-eight hours a week is undoubtedly a minimal estimate of the work these men do. Further the Department should be ashamed of itself for creating a special, bargain-rate minimum wage for these workers.

The Department, of course, was under lots of political pressure from the ranchers. When I dealt with farm labor for the Department in the 1960s, my colleagues and I calculated that the rancher vote at the polls was pretty insignificant, but that each rancher seemed to have the ear of at least two senators and one congressman. And the ranches are spread all over the West in such a way as to make this tiny minority — the ranchers — far more powerful than their numbers would suggest.