In 2000, two Chilean sheepherders in rural Klickitat County abandoned their herd and sued their boss over wages. The case is now before the state Supreme Court.

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CENTERVILLE, Klickitat County — “You need to read this book,” Max Fernandez commands. “Final Flocks.”

Other instructions will follow, sometimes in a phone call, other times in a heavy pen on copies of state labor documents, letters from politicians or testimonials: “PLEASE CALL” “NOTE” and “LOOK!”

Three years have passed since Fernandez’s legal fight began, but time hasn’t blunted his obsession.

To the 64-year-old sheep rancher from Chile, this is an epic battle — one that threatens age-old traditions, the rules of fair play, and perhaps most important, his reputation.

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“Does this look like abuse?” Fernandez asks, gesturing to a modern two-bedroom manufactured home behind his ranch house. This is where his sheepherders live most of the year.

“Does this look like abuse?” he repeats, opening a tidy trailer with a bunk bed, refrigerator, sink, stove, toilet and a bookshelf holding a Bible and copy of John Updike’s “Rabbit Run.” This is where they live when they take the herds into remote pastures for grazing.

“We believe in hard work. We believe in America. We believe in the law,” Fernandez says, his voice rising with each proclamation. “And we cannot believe this is going on.”

Eighty-five miles away in Yakima, the nonprofit Columbia Legal Services is waging its own fight, to defend the principles of fair wages and decent working conditions for laborers who are all too often exploited.

Attorney Dan Ford, apparently Fernandez’s temperamental opposite, says simply, “I think people who do this type of work are entitled to the minimum wage like everyone else.”

Fernandez pays his sheepherders $650 a month plus room and board. It’s the legal prevailing wage for a job that requires herders, most of them South Americans working under federal H-2A visas, to be on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

With days that can range from six hours to more than 12 hours, the pay works out to between $1.80 and $4 an hour, far below the state’s $7.35 minimum.

Labor advocates want to change that. Columbia Legal Services is suing Fernandez and The Western Range Association, a California-based labor broker and co-employer, on behalf of two sheepherders who fled Fernandez’s ranch in 2000, claiming they were underpaid.

The dispute has made it to the state Supreme Court, which heard the case May 12 and will issue a decision later this year. It’s a big case for such a small constituency — there are only about 12 sheepherders working in Washington at any given time. But a legal victory could affect other occupations, from apartment managers to care-givers, anyone whose job requires them to be on-site and on call.

A victory could also spark similar sheepherder challenges in other states, where employers follow the same wage guidelines set by the U.S. Department of Labor.

“It could,” says Dennis Richins of the Western Range Association, “break the whole Western United States open-range sheep industry.”

A meal shared

On a windy Friday in April, Fernandez has prepared a lunch of lamb-sausage stew, hard Chilean bread, red wine and canned peaches. He and his men do this once a week, he explains, feasting in the middle of the ewe barn redolent of newborns and afterbirth.

When talk turns to the lawsuit, Fernandez raises his chin and says quietly, “We’ll talk about that later.”

He doesn’t want his workers to hear about the sheepherder who started it all, a young man with a engaging smile and a fondness for going into town and eating pizza.

Heriberto Berrocal, a Chilean in his late 20s, left the sheep, the dogs and his job early one morning in 2000. He took fellow herder Rafael Castillo with him. The pair went to Yakima, where they met the people at Columbia Legal Services, which provides free legal help to the poor. They told the lawyers they were working too hard and earning too little. Two years later, the agency filed suit.

If Fernandez’s current herder, a quiet and serious Chilean named Rolando Barrientos, knows about the dispute he doesn’t let on. He’s busy teaching his 19-year-old nephew, David Barrientos, the art of sheep tending: birthing, feeding, shearing, and, if a lamb breaks a tiny leg, splinting.

The herders are in the middle of lambing season. Even with a third man working the night shift, this is the most labor-intensive part of the year. Lambs pop out every few hours, and the corrals are under constant vigilance.

By next year, most of these animals will be gone, their meat sold for consumption, their wool for things like Pendleton blankets.

For now, though, the Barrientos are teaching the lambs how to walk in an orderly herd.

Riding on horseback, they move the sheep between mixing pens. Each short move brings pandemonium, a clatter of hooves and high-pitched bleats from lambs frantically searching for their mothers.

Some never do reunite with the ewes, earning them the name “bummer lambs.”

“The poor things, they live a bad life,” Fernandez says. “They are like a gang. Nobody want ’em, all the ewes chase ’em. They spend their lives stealing. Oh, it’s a sad life being a bummer.”

Earning more here

At $650 a month, 33-year-old Rolando is earning three times what he would in his hometown of Coyhaique in Chile’s Patagonia region. It’s enough to support his wife and son, who remain back home, and to save for a small business he plans to open when he returns for good.

But such pay disparities have kept herders’ wages down in the United States, creating a closed system of supply and demand. By law, employers can only hire H-2A workers if the job can’t be filled locally. Since few domestic workers will accept such low wages, ranchers are free to import herders from Peru, Chile, Mexico and even Mongolia, perpetuating a prevailing wage that’s roughly 30 percent below the U.S. minimum of $5.15 an hour.

Rolando could make more in other states, where the pay can top $900 a month. But he finds comfort in Washington’s landscape, which reminds him of Coyhaique, and in having a fellow Chilean as a boss.

While Rolando’s here, he’s teaching himself English, he explains through an interpreter. And he’s learning to drive. Fernandez teaches all his sheepherders, helping them practice on a 1975 flatbed truck, buckled from run-ins with barbed-wire fences and with a windshield that’s cracked.

This month, Rolando embarks on the nomadic part of his job. He’ll take border collies, the Great Pyrenees guard dogs and several hundred sheep out into the pastures for grazing. They’ll head south to the Columbia River and north to the federally owned Mount Adams wilderness. On the long trips, Rolando will live in the trailer, returning to the ranch every 10 days or so.

This is the work most people associate with sheepherding, a practice that hasn’t changed since biblical times. It’s a way of life that has all but disappeared in the state, as large-range ranches steadily went out of business in the 20th century, victims of foreign competition, shrinking grazing lands and dried-up government subsidies.

Today, the only large-range sheep ranchers in Washington are Fernandez and Carol Martinez, who runs an operation to the north near Moxee, Yakima County.

The state’s sheep inventory dropped to 46,000 in 2004, 10,000 fewer than two years earlier.

Wholesale prices for lamb and wool, however, rose. Ranchers got 90 cents a pound for lamb in 2003, up from 69 cents a year earlier. Wool prices rose from 47 cents a pound to 63 cents over the same period, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

That was an unusually good year, says Richins of the range association.

“Prior to that we were in a downslide and we had some awful big holes to dig out of. Two or three years ago, instead of getting any money for wool, it cost you to shear them.”

Sheepherders isolated

By the nature of their work, and nature of the guest-worker program, sheepherders are isolated and dependent. It’s a risky combination in the hands of an unethical employer. Over the past five years, sheepherders in California have revealed horror stories about their working conditions.

Some reported that they were virtual captives of bosses who threatened them with beatings or deportation if they complained. Others said they were denied contact with their families, underfed, and forced to steal fruit and vegetables from nearby orchards.

Central California Legal Services issued a report on the abuses in 2000, prompting toughened housing standards and a pay boost from $900 a month to $1,200 a month, the highest in the country.

It stopped short, however, of requiring ranchers to pay herders minimum wage.

“For some reason the industry seems to have an inordinate amount of power for its size,” says Chris Schneider, director of the California legal agency.

Born in Peru and raised in New York, Alvaro Bedoya is one of the rare outsiders to penetrate the sheepherders’ sphere. For his undergraduate thesis at Harvard in 2002, he went in search of the herders as they grazed, bumping along miles of knotty grassland in California, scouting the horizon for the dust plume that signals the presence of a herd.

Two years after labor advocates had exposed the abuses, Bedoya found that little had changed. He talked to about 32 herders, many living in tents with no heaters, no toilets and no way to refrigerate their food.

“These people are just living in squalor,” says Bedoya, now a law student at Yale. “One told me he’d eaten two sheep, canned food and nothing else for a year.”

Fernandez is aware of the industry scandals, and that this lawsuit thrusts him into that ugly circle.

The more he thinks about it, the more angry he becomes — at the sheepherder who sued (“he couldn’t even throw a lasso”), at Columbia Legal Services (“social engineers”), at the $50,000 he’s spending to defend himself for something he believes should have been taken up with the Legislature, not the courts.

He has contacted state senators, his congressman, labor agencies, the media. He enlisted the support of neighbors, who wrote testimonials vouching for his character. He hired a private detective after the sheepherders who sued him left the area so they could try to reach a settlement, he says. He found Castillo in Corvallis, Ore., but the herder fled as soon as he saw his former boss.

In an office a few feet from the barn, Fernandez keeps a filing cabinet full of documents to prove that he’s complied with the laws: letters from the state Employment Security Department saying he’s meeting wage guidelines, and inspectors’ reports from the Department of Labor & Industries noting that the sheepherders’ housing is “very good.”

In a sworn statement “before God, the Bible and the Virgin Mary,” a former sheepherder named Nolberto Esparza said, “we have good and abundant food, a good house, a telephone on which to call whenever we want.”

State labor agencies confirm Fernandez’s clean record.

He points all this out more than once, part of the endless mental rehashing that comes with being a defendant in a lawsuit. The case intrudes on even the most benign conversations.

Asked, for instance, what predators threaten his flock, Fernandez can’t help himself.

“Coyotes,” he says with a wry smile, “and Columbia Legal Services.”

Shirleen Holt: 206-464-8316 or Seattle Times researcher Gene Balk contributed to this story.