Wixom: 'They're not indentured servants; these people have the right to quit'
By SEAN ELLIS
BOISE -- A bill introduced in the Idaho Legislature would make it a misdemeanor for sheepherders to walk off the job and abandon their animals without first notifying their employer they are quitting.
Idaho's sheep industry has faced a growing problem of sheepherders abandoning their sheep-related duties, Idaho Wool Growers Association Executive Director Stan Boyd told lawmakers Feb. 25.
"It's been a real problem all along but it seemed to have heightened here this past year," Boyd said after the Senate State Affairs Committee voted unanimously to introduce the bill. "We've had a rush of requests from the industry" to do something.
Job headhunters are enticing some of the shepherds with the promise of better jobs and the bill would also make it a misdemeanor for someone to aid or abet someone who abandons their sheep duties.
In Idaho, a misdemeanor violation carries maximum penalties of six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.
Most shepherds in Idaho come from Peru under the H-2A guest worker program, Boyd said. Ranchers spend about $3,000 to get them here, which includes a paid return ticket. If a shepherd wants to quit and go home or be transferred to another operation, they can be immediately, he said.
But ranchers should at least be notified first, said Boyd, who pointed out that if a shepherd leaves without notification, they have violated their contract and become an illegal alien.
"They just need to tell the owner that, for whatever reason, they don't want to work there any more," Boyd said. "If they leave in the middle of the night and they're on the open range ... the sheep are scattered all over and predators get in. It just causes a lot of problems."
Blackfoot-area sheep rancher Ken Wixom, who lost sheep after a worker abandoned a flock on top of a mountain, supports the bill.
But he said it's important to note that sheep ranchers don't want to criminalize the act of quitting. They just want to make sure they're notified before someone quits so they don't lose sheep.
Besides the fact that abandoned sheep are easy prey for predators, ranchers also have obligations to properly manage Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management allotments, he said. Plus, ranchers would be liable for an untended band of sheep that dug into a nearby sugar beet field or hay stack.
If a sheepherder tells their employer they quit and promptly walks off the job, that's fine and it's the employer's responsibility to replace them, he said.
"They're not indentured servants; these people have the right to quit," Wixom said. "But they need to advise their employer they are quitting before they walk off. I think that's pertinent."
In a hint of possible opposition the bill may face, Sen. Elliot Werk, D-Boise, asked whether there was any other job in Idaho where quitting resulted in a misdemeanor.