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Colorado's Shepherds Face Cold Holiday

Ignacio Alvarado, a former sheep herder, advocates on behalf of Colorado's migrant workers. (Joe Mahoney)
Ignacio Alvarado, a former sheep herder, advocates on behalf of Colorado's migrant workers. (Joe Mahoney)
December 22, 2016

DENVER – Each year, some 300 men, mostly from South America, are recruited for work virtually no American wants to do: tending to sheep and other livestock around the clock on Colorado's ranches and rangelands.

Ignacio Alvarado came to the United States from Chile on a special H-2A visa in the 1990s. He said the conditions facing workers - including substandard wages, housing and food, lack of access to health care and harassment from ranchers - prompted him to become an advocate.

"And the way that they would treat the workers, when you first showed up - your first time appearing on the ranch - the rancher would immediately start abusing you in English, and you didn't understand any English,” Alvarado recalled.

Shepherds working 24 hours a day, seven days a week used to get a base pay of $750 a month. But after a hard-won fight, last year the U.S. Department of Labor raised that monthly minimum to $1,200. Alvarado observed that it’s still less than $3 an hour.

Ranchers argue that while herders are on-call around the clock, actual hours worked are less than 48 per week, and they also get free room and board.

During his years of herding, Alvarado said he was only able to talk to his family back in Chile around the Christmas holiday. He said he lived alone for months at a time with no running water, toilet or shower and no place to wash his clothes. He notes that since then, some ranchers have made improvements.

"But others are still using the old trailers that were old in 1990,” Alvarado said. "Some of them had holes in them and there were mice living inside them, so in order to live in them, they used duct tape to close up holes."

Alvarado is now 58 and shares a bungalow with his wife, Dora, in a small town on the Western Slope. He said he'll continue reaching out to shepherds in Colorado's fields, to listen to their stories, deliver supplies like food if needed and make sure they know their rights as workers.


This story was produced with original reporting from Kristin Jones for The Colorado Trust. Find out more at ColoradoTrust.org.

Eric Galatas, Public News Service - CO