Klickitat County sheep rancher Max Fernandez won a three-year legal battle yesterday when the state Supreme Court ruled that he has no obligation...

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Klickitat County sheep rancher Max Fernandez won a three-year legal battle yesterday when the state Supreme Court ruled that he has no obligation to pay his sheepherders the minimum wage.

In a 5-4 decision, the court said that sheepherders are not eligible for the minimum wage, because their duties require that they live where they work.

“We are glad about the decision, and I know that I’ve been complying with the law,” said Fernandez, who was sued in 2002 by two former sheepherders who said their $650 monthly pay, plus room, board, health insurance and two weeks’ paid vacation, was inadequate.

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Although that’s the legal wage for herders, they argued that it came to as little as $1.80 an hour, far below the state’s $7.35 minimum wage.

Some workers are exempt from the minimum wage, and this lawsuit challenged whether sheepherders — who are on site and on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week — should remain among them.

If the court had ruled in the herders’ favor, it might have opened the way for other on-site and on-call workers, beyond the roughly 12 sheepherders working in Washington, to demand the minimum wage. Some workers’-rights advocates worry that yesterday’s decision could lead to lower wages for other people whose jobs require that they live where they work.

“How we can have workers in this country not even making the minimum wage is outrageous,” said Erik Nicholson, Pacific Northwest regional director for the United Farm Workers of America.

But it seems unlikely that the decision, which maintains the status quo for sheepherders, will have a broader impact.

Elaine Fischer, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Labor and Industries, said the department is still reviewing the court’s decision, but that “at first blush, we don’t see that it would create any minimum-wage exemptions that weren’t already there.”

Rafael Castillo, one of the sheepherders who sued Fernandez, said through an attorney that he is disappointed. He and Heriberto Berrocal worked for Fernandez in 1999 and 2000. They, like other sheepherders, came here from South America to work under federal H-2A visas.

“He hoped other workers wouldn’t have to suffer in the same way and is hopeful that future efforts will result in more just treatment for all workers no matter where they come from,” said Lori Isley, one of his attorneys at Columbia Legal Services in Yakima.

Isley declined to comment on whether her clients would pursue the case further, but said that the close court ruling suggests there are “serious questions about the meaning of the law.”

“We hope the legislature will make clear, as we believe they meant, that workers who reside or sleep at their place of employment are entitled to the minimum wage for the hours they actually work,” she said.

Sen. Jim Honeyford, R-Sunnyside, Yakima County, hopes that doesn’t happen. Fernandez and another sheep rancher are his constituents and, “I’m afraid if anybody tries to change this, it will put them out of business.”

Fernandez said he would have left sheep ranching if the court had decided against him. He said he has spent $60,000 to defend himself in the lawsuit. He still has counterclaims pending against the two sheepherders for breach of contract.

Melissa Allison: 206-464-3312