by Sterling Allen
for Agri-Times NW
Centerville- One of my celebrated journeys in life is to visit and share with AGRI-TIMES NW readers fascinating personalities such as Maximillion Fernadez.
The native Chilean immigrated to the US in 1960 to pursue economic opportunity. His family emigrated from Spain to Punta Arenas, Chile the southernmost region in 1897 and claims family roots in the sheep business for over 700 years. Soon after he arrived to America, the socialist government overtook Chile, confiscated his family’s ranch and killed his father. Fernandez came to America, graduated from college, and pursued a career as a petroleum engineer. He was employed by BP Petroleum where he worked for over 20 years. In 1965 he married Ann, an Iowa farm girl and teacher. They successfully raised two daughters, a teacher and a lawyer. He eventually attained his dream of owning a livestock operation by purchasing the Centerville ranch in 1980. The scenic valley ranch consists of rangeland and produces alfalfa, barley, wheat, cattle and runs a band of Rambouillett ewes on deeded and State leases.
Max Fernandez has been living the American dream, but the successful sheepman faced a lawsuit in 2011 and his dream quickly became a nightmare. The lawsuit was led by Legal Services, Northwest Justice of WA and Farmworkers Justice of Washington D.C. Three former employees claimed mistreatment.
Throughout the west, sheep ranchers depend upon hiring H-2A workers on a temporary work permit. When looking for sheepherders, the Western Range Association has been the” go to” for sheep and goat producers for over 50 years. Many years ago, sheep herders were Irish immigrants, many whom stayed and had families who now operate ranches in our region, along with Basque’s from Spain and France. WRA has coordinators in Peru and Chile that help locate possible new herders that have experience and are looking to work in the United States. After completing a three-year H-2A contract, a herder must return home. In accordance with the H-2A out-of-country formula, the herder must stay out of the country for a minimum of 90 days. Once the herder has met his out-of-country requirement he may return to the United States on a new H-2A contract.
Fernandez gave me a tour of the two H2-A worker’s living arrangements, which were adequate and clean. The food cellar was complete with ample food and freezers were full. It was clearly evident during our visit that Fernandez is a man of high, impeccable honor, and would not do anything to deny a worker their human rights. Workers are paid $1356 per month. A copy of the monthly settlement sheet states if they do not want to work at the ranch any more, or want to be transferred they have the right to call the Western Range Association or inform Hernandez of their decision. The salary is always wired to the workers’ families in their own countries.
Elvis Ruiz, Francisco Javier Castro and Eduardo Martinez all came from Chile on H-2A temporary visas to work as sheepherders. They claimed rancher Max Fernandez illegally underpaid them for work, failed to provide adequate food, restricted outside communication, withheld wages and threatened deportation if they left his ranch. Furthermore, the suit claimed workers were mistreated because they built and fixed fences, maintained machinery and did other general ranch duties rather than sheepherding. Herder’s claims also include insults and poor living conditions and the confiscation of passports.
The trio recently settled with Max Fernandez and Western Range Association in the lawsuit for the amount of $110,000.
“Legal Services are social engineers,” said Hernandez. “They play herders as victims. Politicians are afraid of Legal Services.”
A suit against farmers or agribusiness, filed by Legal Services, has little recourse but to settle the claim, even if not merited, according to the book Harvest of Injustice by Rael Jean Isaac. Under the Fair Labor Standards Act, Legal Services can have their attorney fees paid by the farmer, even though their attorneys are paid by the Federal Government. The litigation machine is stacked against the farmer. “You might win on principal but loose the farm, “ the book claims. Legal Services Act gives shelter from political pressure and shields from accountability allowing them to intimidate, and damage those they have targeted. The taxpayer underwrites what is, in effect, a huge public interest law firm dedicated to advancing their own conception of “social reform.”
Fact is, Legal Services does not like the H2-A program nationally. The agency wants farmers to hire locally, and not contract for H2-A employees. Certainly, AGRI-TIMES NW in its “day in the life of” articles can attest to the fact the work ethic of migrant laborers is often not matched with local labor.
In 2005, Fernandez won a 5-4 decision from the Washington Supreme Court exempting workers who live or sleep at their work site from the state Minimum Wage Act. Compensation to farm works can become complicated when housing, food, utilities, phones, etc. are provided while minimum wage and hour requirements set the standard.
Fernandez has been honored with the Agriculture Department’s Distinguished Service Award at WSU for support of agricultural research with his donation of Wagyu cattle to the college. He is currently on the USDA Advisory Committee on Animal Health.
In my experience, and as witnessed by several I met on a recent visit to Centerville, I found Max Fernandez to be a very fair minded, generous, educated, worldly, empathetic and determined individual. He feels he’s been wronged and that readers could fall victim to his same experiences. With the accepted risks that accompany farming and ranching coupled with the political uncertainties that we’re currently experiencing, it may also be time to be especially watchful and cautious in dealing with employee rights and accusations.