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Sheep industry criticizes H-2A rule changes

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INKOM, Idaho — Federal reforms implemented a year ago haven’t enticed more domestic workers to take sheep industry jobs, say leaders of an organization that hires foreign labor for Western sheep ranchers.

Instead, officials of the Twin Falls, Idaho-based Western Range Association believe the November 2015 rule changes to the H-2A temporary agricultural worker visa program have become needlessly complicated and delayed approvals of badly needed workers.

Henry Etcheverry, an Eastern Idaho Basque sheep rancher who started a three-year term as the association’s president in June, said his organization’s more than 200 sheep operations have collectively hired only two domestic workers since the changes were enacted.

One worker was fired for being intoxicated on the job. The other never showed up for work.

Sheep ranchers are required to advertise job openings before filling them with foreign H-2A workers, but Etcheverry finds the few locals who express interest are typically out for a “camping trip.”

“It’s just a pipe dream,” Etcheverry said. “This government thinks there should be availability of (jobs) for domestic people, but domestic people don’t want to herd sheep — at least not for any period of time.”

H-2A visas fill a critical labor need for U.S. agriculture. But Etcheverry said the application process is so complicated that most operations rely on outside help, such as the association.

Etcheverry intends to visit with federal officials about the need for reforms during a November sheep producers’ convention in Sun Valley, Idaho.

H-2A workers are allowed to work at a U.S. sheep ranch for up to three years, with their status renewed annually.

According to a government fact sheet, the program changes improve administrative efficiencies and “promote greater consistency in the review of H-2A applications, provide workers employed in the U.S. with improved health benefits and protections and provide greater clarity for employers with respect to compliance of program requirements.”

Sheep ranchers, however, say the federal government couldn’t keep pace with H-2A applications under the revised rules and failed to process renewals in time, forcing many operations to send workers home and then bear the expense of re-processing them and bringing them back.

Castleford, Idaho, rancher Mike Guerry had to return 30 workers to Peru and Chile from January through March.

He noted the new rules roughly double minimum wages for sheep workers over the next three years, though sheep prices are down. Other changes require operators to give each employee a cell phone and prohibit compensating workers who would rather use their own phones, restrict workers from cutting wood and restrict lodging and dining facilities from within 500 yards of a corral, though watching sheep is a key role of a sheepherder.

Guerry said operators may even be fined for failing to publicize benefits offered in excess of minimum requirements.

Tremonton, Utah, rancher Lane Jensen, the association’s interim executive director, said another change specifies herders can’t deliver supplies to one another.

Jensen said the association is lobbying to restore the status of members who were short of workers and kept them past deadlines when the government failed to renew their H-2A visas.

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