While clerking in Colorado federal court after graduating from Yale Law School, Dermot Lynch began looking for a project that would enable him to use his education and training to make a difference. His search led him to a Skadden fellowship with the Denver-based workers’ rights advocacy group Towards Justice and the frontlines of a fight in support of Peruvian shepherds and cattle herders on ranches across several Rocky Mountain states.
“It’s a very tough existence,” says Dermot about the living and working conditions for shepherds and cattle herders, who are on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, often earning as little as $2 per hour. “Most of them live in little tin trailers that have no refrigeration or plumbing, or in tents on the side of a mountain.”
Dermot’s connection with Peruvians and their culture took root a decade ago, when, as a recent college graduate, he spent nearly three years living in and traveling across Peru. As a Skadden fellow, he helps Peruvians address the severe conditions they face as “temporary agricultural workers” on H-2A visas. His work has focused on two class action lawsuits, which set forth claims relating to employers’ violations of currently lax employment laws and the substandard conditions in which the federal government allows shepherds to work.
The first class action is against the region’s main ranching industry organizations, the Western Range Association and the Mountain Plains Agricultural Service, which are joint employers of H-2A shepherds and fix the wages of all shepherds at the minimum level authorized under the H-2A visa program. Both associations also are responsible for complying with H-2A regulations for reimbursement of expenses the shepherds incur in securing their visas and traveling to the United States. According to Dermot, at least 80 percent of the approximately 2,000 H-2A shepherds in the Rocky Mountain states hail from small, mountain villages surrounding the city of Huancayo, Peru, a six- to eight-hour bus trip from the capital, Lima, which the visa applicants typically must take at least four or five times to secure the required criminal reviews, medical records and other paperwork.
The second action, against the U.S. departments of Labor and Homeland Security, challenges in part the visa classification under which the workers operate. Although the H-2A visa was designed to be a temporary visa, many of the workers operate under repeatedly renewed three-year contracts and have no right to stay in the U.S. without sponsorship from their employers. Revising the classification in accordance with the law would give the plaintiffs access to green cards by making them holders of “permanent” worker visas.
Dermot says some ranchers make life particularly hard on workers who attempt to join the fight, either through emotional or even physical abuse or by making their living conditions even worse — reducing their food rations is among the more common tactics. Nonetheless, Dermot has been able to get a number of the workers to join the lawsuits. “I speak Spanish with a Peruvian accent, and I know a lot of the weird slang, idioms and jokes that Peruvians would use. I’m also a 6'4" white guy, so they think it’s hilarious when they hear my Spanish. I think it helps me build a rapport and earn their trust,” says Dermot, who was born in Dublin, Ireland. “But, a lot of them see me as a lawyer, and they’re scared. If their boss comes up and sees a conversation, they could be endangering their employment.”
Dermot’s fellowship ends in November, when both cases should be well underway. “I doubt we’ll have a definitive ruling on either claim,” he says, “but I want to make sure the industry and the government are forced by a court to answer the legitimate concerns that these shepherds have.”