H-2A Comments Come From Variety of Sources in Industry

H-2A Comments Come From Variety of Sources in Industry

Wool and sheepskin companies, bankers, shearers, textile companies and allied businesses united with sheep producers from across the country asking the Department of Labor to withdraw the wage formulation for H-2A sheepherders and replace it with a new method that is sustainable for sheepherders, the industry and the sheepherder program. 

“We count 484 comments filed to the Department of Labor’s proposed rule,” said Peter Orwick, ASI executive director. “There are many eloquent statements and solid points about the serious impacts and problems of the rule.” 
Nearly all commenters also spoke to the troubling proposal that ranches would be ineligible to hire herders if the sheep were required to spend half the year or more outside the sight of a fence or livestock facility.
Political appointees and elected officials also signed their names in support of the sheep industry. Sens. Mike Enzi (Wyo.), Cory Gardner (Colo.), Steve Daines (Mont.) and Heidi Heidkamp (N.D.), Reps. Cynthia Lummis (Wyo.), Ken Buck (Colo.) and Mark Amodei (Nev.) and Wyoming Gov. Matthew Mead commented alongside several county commissioners, the State of Utah and the state agriculture departments of Wyoming and New Mexico. Several sheep publications, six state Farm Bureau associations, many state sheep associations and the National Lamb Feeders Association also submitted comments asking for changes. 
“In reviewing the comments, it was interesting to note the level of dependency two lamb companies with hundreds of millions of dollars in annual sales and hundreds of employees have on sheep production under the care of H-2A herders. Comments quoted that 60 to 65 percent of all their lamb processing is ultimately reliant on the herder program,” said Orwick. “If the program is unaffordable or unavailable to the ranchers, then lambs will not be available for these companies. Approximately 38 percent of all sheep in America are under the watch of an H-2A sheepherder so we are not surprised that companies are just as threatened by the rule as ranchers.” 
The comment period is now closed and the DOL will spend as much as three months in the review and redraft process. 
The following is a summary of the full, eight-page comment submitted jointly by ASI and the Public Lands Council to the Department of Labor concerning proposed changes to H-2A .
ASI is the national trade organization representing the interests of more than 79,500 sheep producers located throughout the United States. PLC is the only national organization dedicated solely to representing the roughly 22,000 ranchers who hold grazing rights on federal lands.
Changes to the H-2A sheepherder program, therefore, would have a significant negative impact on the sheep industry and all related businesses – lamb processors, wool warehouses, textile mills, trucking and feed companies, veterinarians, fencing businesses and, most importantly, on the 79,500 family farms and ranches that raise sheep in America. 
The U.S. Department of Labor was not required by the courts to change the special procedures of the sheepherder and livestock worker programs, however, it has proposed to do so. ASI’s comments focused on two of the top changes in the proposal – wage and job definition. These two changes, as proposed, will mean that most of the sheep ranches employing H-2A herders today will find the program unaffordable or unavailable to them in 2016. Sheep-producer reactions to the proposed wage, and our economic analysis of it, concludes the expense is not sustainable for ranches to continue in the sheep business. 
The sheep on these ranches must be herded. If left to themselves, the sheep would be killed by predators, lost to disease/starvation or not recoverable by the rancher. However, there is no alternative to the H-2A sheepherder as American workers have declined to herd sheep for a living since the 1950’s. Also, there is no current pool of American workers who are trained in the specialty of herding sheep. 
Therefore, if there are no H-2A herders on U.S. ranches – for lack of any alternatives – the sheep will be sold. History demonstrated this in the case of the National Wool Act, which was phased out by the federal government in 1993-95. Tens of thousands of sheep ranches subsequently went out of production and millions of breeding sheep were disposed of when they could not budget a profit on their operation. In the late 1990s, linked allied industries followed the sheep producers by also going out of business as the lack of lamb, wool and customers forced them out.
We request the department withdraw the proposed wage methodology and replace it with a version that addresses the base-wage stagnation of the past 20 years yet at a rate that sustains the H-2A sheepherders and sheepherder program, as well as the sheep industry.
ASI provided input to the development of the two-wage methodologies contained in the comments of the Western Range Association and Mountain Plains Agricultural Service, and ask full consideration of adoption by the DOL.

“Open Range” and “Limits on Incidental” Work (Job Definition) 

The second critical issue for which we provide comment is the job definition of a sheepherder as proposed in 20 C.F.R. § 201 (proposed); 80 Fed. Reg. 20339.

The proposal suggests that no fences would be allowed in connection with sheepherders and, further, half of the herders’ year must be spent away from the ranch headquarters and livestock facilities. 

ASI’s membership, and that of the WRA and MPAS, indicate a majority of sheep operations would not be eligible to hire H-2A herders under this scenario. California sheep operations are a great example of this impact as they utilize targeted grazing under temporary fencing to reduce fire danger on a wide variety of forage from federal grazing allotments, private-native and -crop pastures and leased grasslands.
We asked the department to update their description of sheepherder duties and the management of sheep production to “Grazing Livestock Production System.” 
Orwick encourages readers to visit Sheepusa.org’s Legislative Action Center to view the full comments, as well as the extended comments of MPAS and WRA.
“Rather than just point out problems, we provided alternatives that will work,” Orwick said. “The Department of Labor will spend the next two months preparing the final rule that it will publish in November (or earlier) per direction of the federal courts.”
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