Goats grazing to prevent wildfires could lose their jobs due to California labor law

WEST SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Hundreds of goats munch long leaves of yellow grass on the hillside next to a sprawling townhouse complex. They were hired to remove vegetation that could cause wildfires as temperatures rise this summer.

These voracious herbivores are in high demand as they devour the weeds and shrubs that have thrived across California after a drought of heavy rains and snow.

“It’s a huge source of fuel. The pasture was grazing, said West Sacramento City Parks Administrator Jason Poupolo.

Targeted grazing is part of California’s strategy to reduce wildfire risk because goats eat a wide variety of plants and can graze in rugged, rocky terrain that is difficult to access. Proponents claim it is an environmentally friendly alternative to chemical herbicides and weeding machines that cause noise and pollution.

But new state labor regulations have raised the cost of providing goat herding services, and ranching companies say the rules threaten to put them out of business. The change could raise a pastoralist’s monthly salary from about $3,730 to $14,000, according to the California Department of Agriculture.

Companies typically have about 1 pastoralist in charge of 400 goats. Many California pastoralists are from Peru and live near rangelands in employer-provided mobile homes. Labor advocates say states should examine the working and living conditions of goat herders before enacting legislative changes, especially as states fund goat grazing to reduce the risk of wildfires. claims.

After years of devastating fires that burned down millions of acres, destroyed thousands of homes and killed dozens of people, the state of California has invested heavily in wildfire prevention. are investing. Goats have been used to clear fuel around Lake Oroville, along Highway 101, and near the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.

“The phone rings around this time of year,” said Tim Arrowsmith, owner of the Western Glazers, which provides grazing services to West Sacramento. “The demand is increasing year by year.”

Based in the Northern California city of Red Bluff, his company rents about 4,000 goats to clear vegetation for government agencies and private landowners throughout Northern California. If the new regulations are not fixed, “we will be forced to sell these goats to slaughterhouses and auction houses, which will force us to go out of business and possibly file for bankruptcy,” Arrowsmith said.

Because goat and shepherd work requires on-call 24/7, companies have traditionally been allowed to pay goats and shepherds a monthly minimum wage rather than an hourly minimum wage. However, a bill signed in 2016 also allows overtime payments. This effectively raised the minimum monthly wage for pastoralists from $1,955 in 2019 to $3,730 this year. It is expected to reach $4,381 by 2025, according to the California Department of Industry Relations.

So far, ranching companies suing over the law have passed most of the increased labor costs on to their customers.

However, labor costs are expected to soar again in January. Goat herders and shepherds have always followed the same rules of labor last year. But state officials have ruled that this is no longer allowed, meaning goat herders are subject to the same labor laws as other farm workers.

That means goat herders are entitled to higher salaries than ever before, up to $14,000 a month. Last year’s budget trailer bill delayed that salary requirement by a year, but it’s set to go into effect on January 1 if nothing is done to change the law.

Goat breeding companies say nomads cannot afford to pay that much. We would have to raise our rates significantly, and then we would not be able to offer goat grazing services.

“We fully support wage increases for pastoralists, but $14,000 a month is not realistic. There is,” said Brian Shove, deputy director of policy for the California Climate Agriculture Network.

The goat farming industry is asking Congress to approve a bill that would treat goat herders like shepherds. A bill to do so has not yet received public hearings.

California Labor Federation president Lorena Gonzalez-Fletcher said goat herders were “one of the most vulnerable workers in America” ​​and said they had temporary work visas and could be fired at any time to return to their home countries. He said he could be deported. Most of them work in isolation, speak minimal English, and do not have the same rights as Americans and green card holders.

“We have a national responsibility to ensure that all workers in California are treated with dignity and respect, and that includes goat herders,” he said when he was a San Diego legislator. said Gonzalez Fletcher, who supported the overtime farm workers bill. .

Arrowsmith employs seven goat herders from Peru under the H-2A visa program for temporary farm workers. Pastoralists are paid about $4,000 a month and do not need to pay for food, housing or telephone bills, he said.

“We can’t pay our employees $14,000 a month starting January 1. We just don’t have enough money. Cities can’t absorb that kind of cost,” Arrowsmith said. “What is at stake for the public is that your house could burn down because we cannot prevent fires.”

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