By Adam Paul Laxalt
33rd Attorney General of Nevada
My great-grandfather was a Basque sheepherder. He came from the Pyrenees Mountains in the Basque Country, and made his home in our Sierra Nevada. The ancient practice of sheepherding thrives in our state even today, providing jobs and opportunities for many immigrant families, as it did mine. But a new rule from the United States Department of Labor now threatens their trade. Reflecting a strained understanding of this proud, ancestral calling, the rule will harm the nomadic culture of migrant sheepherding by imposing an unworkable mini-code on its daily operations.
For example, the new rule would require employers to provide a “separate bed, cot, or bunk with a clean mattress” for each employee even though sheepherders generally move around in tents. It would prohibit sheepherders from spending more than 20% of their “regular workday” (a misnomer for sheepherders) on activities other than herding. New benefits must be freely provided to employees, on top of a threefold minimum wage increase. There are also impractical formulas and puzzling record-keeping requirements. The rules range more widely than the sheep themselves.
I learned of this intrusive policy when Brent Espil, a Nevada sheepherder, voiced his concerns with my office. The new regulations — covering the H–2A visa program which allows employers to hire foreign temporary agricultural workers for sheepherding and livestock handling on the open range — appear to be the result of a lawsuit against the Department of Labor for higher wages. Normally, disgruntled employees contact the association that placed them with their employers and are relocated to a new employer. Espil was surprised by the implied mistreatment of employees, saying “You’ve got to treat them right and they’ll take care of your livestock. It’s common sense.”
Common sense has long guided this industry without Washington’s help. The danger of the rule’s new wage regulations—including its new hourly wage—is to foist 9-to-5 concepts on a historically roving and unfettered trade. Although sheepherders are on-call 24/7, their actual work hours can vary from just a few on a quiet day to many during lambing season. These regulations could make sheepherding so costly that the jobs intended for protection will disappear. The Labor Department fails to recognize that, although a sheepherder’s pay has never made anyone rich, many migrant workers desire this pastoral lifestyle. Espil boasts that two of his employees have worked with him for 30 years.
Espil was also troubled by the inexplicable rush to revamp the law. Just last year, a federal court stopped the Labor Department from rewriting the rules without input from the sheepherding community. Only after Espil wrote several letters did the agency extend the period for public comment. Hundreds of commenters expressed frustration with the bureaucracy’s evident unfamiliarity with sheepherding.
Thirty-four members of Congress, including Rep. Mark Amodei, of Nevada’s Second District, objected to the rule in a joint letter to the Labor Department. They wrote that the regulation will “end a way of life in the American West” and “triple the cost” of employing migrant sheepherders. I support the members of Congress’ timely intervention on behalf of Nevadans (and beyond).
Papa Laxalt left France for the land of opportunity. He found it working as a Nevada sheepherder. An ever-thickening maze of federal overregulation—reaching even the remote, rugged mountains of Nevada—threatens to turn Nevada and indeed our nation into a place that generations of immigrants would not recognize. We must continue to fight for the land of liberty and opportunity, not more bureaucratic control and regulation.