California Labor Regulations Could Impact Goats’ Role in Preventing Wildfires

On a hillside near a big townhouse complex, hundreds of goats chew on long blades of yellow grass. They were paid to clear vegetation that could spark wildfires this summer as temperatures climb.

These ravenous herbivores are in great demand to eat the weeds and bushes that have flourished across California due to the drought-busting winter of heavy rain and snow.

“It’s a massive fuel source.” It can grow very tall if left uncontrolled. “And then, when it dries out in the summer, it’s the perfect fuel for a fire,” said Jason Poupolo, parks superintendent for West Sacramento, where goats grazed on a recent afternoon.

Because goats can eat a wide variety of flora and graze in steep, rocky terrain that is difficult to access, targeted grazing is part of California’s wildfire risk reduction strategy. Backers argue they are a more environmentally friendly alternative to chemical herbicides or noisy, polluting weed-whacking machines.

However, new state labor regulations are increasing the cost of goat-grazing services, and herding companies believe the requirements threaten to drive them out of business. The modifications may raise herders’ monthly wages from around $3,730 to $14,000.

Companies often assign one herder to oversee 400 goats. Many of the herders in California are from Peru and reside in trailers provided by their employers near grazing areas.

California Labor Regulations Could Impact Goats' Role in Preventing Wildfires

Labor groups argue that the state should evaluate goatherders’ working and living circumstances before changing the law, primarily when the form supports goat grazing to lessen wildfire danger.

After years of severe wildfires that torched millions of acres, damaged thousands of houses, and ki!!ed scores of people, California is investing extensively in wildfire prevention.

Goats have been deployed to clean up fuel spills near Lake Oroville, Highway 101, and the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.

“My phone rings off the hook this time of year,” Tim Arrowsmith, owner of Western Grazers, which provides grazing services in West Sacramento, said. “The demand has grown year after year after year.”

His enterprise, situated in the Northern California community of Red Bluff, employs over 4,000 goats to remove vegetation for government agencies and private landowners throughout the region.

Without a cure for the new restrictions, “we will be forced to sell these goats to slaughter and auction yards, and we’ll be forced out of business and probably file for bankruptcy,” Arrowsmith added.

Because their employment requires them to be on-call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, companies have historically been allowed to pay goat and sheepherders a monthly minimum compensation rather than an hourly minimum wage.

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However, they are also entitled to overtime pay under legislation approved in 2016. It effectively increased the herders’ monthly minimum wage from $1,955 in 2019 to $3,730 this year. California Department of Industrial Relations will reach $4,381 by 2025.

So far, the herding companies that have sued the government have passed on most of the additional labor costs to their clients.

However, labor expenses are expected to rise dramatically again in January. Last year, goatherders and sheepherders followed the same set of labor standards.

However, a state agency has concluded that this is no longer permitted, which means goatherders will be subject to the same labor regulations as other agricultural workers.

This would imply that goatherders would be eligible for higher monthly wages – up to $14,000. Last year, a budget trailer bill postponed that pay requirement for a year, but it is slated to go into force on January 1 if nothing is done to modify the legislation.

Goat-herding enterprises claim they cannot afford to pay that much to herders. They would have to increase their charges, making goat grazing services substantially expensive.

“We fully support raising herders’ wages, but $14,000 per month is unrealistic.” So we must solve that for these goat-grazing operations to continue,” said Brian Shobe, deputy policy director for the California Climate and Agriculture Network.

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The goat-grazing business is urging the Legislature to pass legislation that would treat goatherders in the same way that sheepherders are treated. A bill to that effect has yet to be heard in public.

The California Labor Federation’s Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher said goatherders are among the “most vulnerable workers in America” since they are on temporary work visas and can be fired and deported back to their home country anytime. Most laborers know little English and lack the same privileges as Americans or green-card holders.

“We have a responsibility as a public to ensure that every worker in California is treated with dignity and respect, including these goatherders,” said Gonzalez Fletcher, a former state Assemblywoman from San Diego who supported the farmworker overtime measure.

Arrowsmith employs seven Peruvian goatherders through the H-2A visa program for temporary farmworkers. He claims the herders are paid around $4,000 per month and are not required to pay for food, accommodation, or phones.

“I can’t afford to pay $14,000 per month to an employee beginning January 1.” There simply isn’t enough money. “Cities cannot absorb that kind of cost,” added Arrowsmith. “What is at stake for the public is that your house could b*rn down because we can’t mitigate fires.”

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