State, Ranchers at Odds Over Regulations



OLYMPIA, WA— State regulations governing the living conditions of sheepherders would be replaced by less stringent federal rules under legislation debated Friday.

For example, state law reads that, "where feasible," refrigeration must be provided in the mobile trailers of sheepherders when they are out on rangeland away from the ranch. Federal rules, though, say salting is an acceptable method of food preservation.

Federal rules do not require toilets or hot and cold running water on rangeland; state rules do, "where feasible."

However, state regulators and sheep ranchers are at odds over when it's feasible to install refrigeration or toilets. In the meantime, Sen. Jim Honeyford, R-Sunnyside, is pushing Senate Bill 5696 to resolve the matter by making state and federal rules the same.

Antonio Ginatta, executive director of the Commission on Hispanic Affairs, told the committee his group decided it cannot support the bill after considerable internal discussion.

"This is a difficult issue for us because we are members of chambers of commerce and employers ourselves. But we are also keenly aware of the hardship inherent in the lives of agricultural workers," Ginatta said.

Owners of the state's two sheep ranches said hauling portable toilets would be costly and unreasonable on high-country rangeland, where sheepherders pick up camp every few days to take the herds to new pasture.

"Our men move constantly to look for new grass," said Carol Martinez, owner of the S. Martinez Livestock Co. near Moxee, which is the largest sheep ranch in the state. The ranch has five sheep herders at present, but expects to hire three more. Each sheepherder cares for 1,500 sheep.

Peruvian ambassador Roberto Dañino said in recent correspondence to the state that Peruvian sheepherders at the Martinez ranch should have access to hygienic toilets, heat, air conditioning, showers and refrigeration. Officials with Labor and Industries and Employment Security, which have some jurisdiction over sheepherder living conditions, declined to comment on the ambassador's letter, dated Jan. 30.

The Peruvians work in the United States under the federal H-2A guest worker program, which allows employers to import foreign labor when they cannot find Americans to do the work. Sheep herders in the program work under three-year contracts and earn $650 a month in Washington. The wage is set by state Employment Security.

For a relatively obscure segment of the state's agricultural industry — there are only two sheep ranches in the state and fewer than 10 sheepherders — the topic drew a crowd.

Honorary special consuls from the governments of Mexico, Chile, and Peru attended the hearing in addition to representatives of organized labor. The consuls did not testify, but said later they oppose any measure that would lower standards.

Also appearing was Peruvian shepherd Nelson Lozano de la Cruz, who was brought to Olympia by his employer, Martinez. Lozano answered a few questions about his work from the Senate Commerce and Trade Committee through an interpreter, Rep. Dan Newhouse, a Republican from Sunnyside. The Martinez ranch resides in Honeyford's and Newhouse's legislative district.

Lozano said he would like to return to work at the Martinez ranch when his current contract is up. He also said he misses his wife and two daughters, ages 2 and 4.

When Lozano was asked about the differences between working on a farm in Peru and Yakima Valley, he was brief.

"Work is work," he said.

Peruvian honorary consul Miguel Angel Velasquez after the hearing questioned whether it was appropriate to have an employee testify in front of his employer, someone upon whom he is dependent for food, wages and transportation back to Peru.

"In a situation like this, how much can he say?"


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