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latest news New wage rules for California goat farmers could jeopardize the industry

Increasingly in recent years, Californians have been putting the voracious, near-blind diets of goats to work, minimizing fuel from statewide wildfires – a method that has been heralded as sustainable, economical and effective in reduce undergrowth which can become dangerous during the hot summer months. .

But goat farmers are concerned that a recent change in state labor requirements for herders could jeopardize the future of the industry — something some say is especially important this year, after that an extremely wet winter left even more fuel for wildfires.

Goat farmers were recently reclassified by California labor regulators, differentiating them from sheep farmers – a new distinction that means goat farmers will no longer be eligible for a monthly farmer’s allowance, set at a minimum of 2 $755 plus required overtime. Instead, employers will be required on Jan. 1 to pay goat herders an hourly rate, now set at $15.50 for farmhands, plus required overtime.

And given the nature of a goat farmer’s job, which is considered to be on call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, industry leaders and the California Farm Bureau believe the change would come down to about $14,000 per month.

“We cannot afford this; cities can’t afford it,” said Tim Arrowsmith, owner and manager of Western Grazers in Red Bluff, which employs a few dozen herders for its several thousand goats. He said the monthly salary is almost four times what he currently pays his goat herders, which he already considers a fair wage, noting that they also receive housing, groceries, cell phones and clothes.

Working goats at the Western Grazers in Redding, California eat brush and dry grass as a preventative measure against wildfires.

(Tim Arrowsmith)

Arrowsmith said if this change takes effect next year, he will not be able to maintain his goat grazing business – and many areas requiring his easy and environmentally friendly firefighting will be at a loss .

“We’ve lost millions of homes…we’ve lost lives, cities have burned” to the wildfires, Arrowsmith said. “Taking goats off the table when they do such an effective job in places where you can’t find weed killers or equipment…that’s crazy.

“That’s really what it’s all about, mitigating fires, reducing fuel … so the state doesn’t burn,” Arrowsmith said.

Arrowsmith said about 90% of his company’s contracts are focused on reducing fuel from wildfires.

Officials with the state Department of Industrial Relations and Department of Employment Development did not respond directly to questions from The Times about the reclassification.

Goats clean native grasses

Most goat farmers in California come to work on temporary work visas from Peru, according to Bryan Little, director of employment policy for the California Farm Bureau.

(Marc Martin/Los Angeles Times)

From Laguna Beach to Sacramento, goats have become a simple and smart way to cut brush, especially in hard-to-reach areas like rocky and steep mountainsides. Federal, state, and local governments, as well as homeowners associations and parks, have contracted goat grazing companies for this work.

“Goats are particularly well suited to controlling wildfire fuels,” wrote Bryan Little, director of employment policy for the California Farm Bureau, in a recent article on the issue. “As they graze on dry grasses like sheep, goats also devour tall, highly flammable brush that sheep don’t notice.”

Little and others pro-goat grazing companies recently supported Assembly Bill 1099, which would maintain current compensation requirements for goat farmers. But Assemblymember Megan Dahle’s (R-Redding) proposal has yet to be scheduled for a committee hearing.

Little and Arrowsmith said the majority of goat herders in California — of which there are likely fewer than 100 — come on temporary work visas from Peru, typically staying for about three years. Arrowsmith said most of its employees are able to send money home, build homes and even send their children to private schools, calling the current compensation package more than a fair salary.

But Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, executive director of the California Federation of Labor, said there needed to be more oversight for these workers, whom she called particularly vulnerable – although she agrees that they should be considered hourly workers. probably doesn’t make sense.

“We’re talking about taxpayers’ money being used to support goat farming. Do we not have a responsibility to examine this [industry]?” said Gonzalez Fletcher. “No one is watching this.”

She said just because it’s a small cohort of temporary workers doesn’t mean state officials should assume the status quo is working. She pointed out that last year shepherds across the western United States banded together to sue their employers, claiming they were artificially suppressing wages.

“It’s an issue that we need to look at,” said Gonzalez Fletcher, who drafted and helped champion the farmworker overtime bill when she was a San Diego legislator. Legislation signed by the government of the day. Jerry Brown in 2016 also increased needs compensation for goat herders, who earned just under $2,000 a month in 2019. With the newly required wage increases and overtime payments, the monthly minimum wage rose to $3,853 this year, according to the Department of Industry. Reports.

Given their long hours and time away from their families, Gonzalez Fletcher said it’s likely these goat herders still deserve better pay. She would like to see California goat employers looking for longer-term solutions, instead of just looking to repeal this new classification.

“I want this to work for our agriculture industry, and we need these reduction opportunities,” Gonzalez Fletcher said, “but if we allow an exemption without any monitoring for these Peruvian goat farmers, what happens? he then?”

For Arrowsmith, he said there was no way to continue his business – which he grew from around 10 goats a decade ago to several thousand now – if this change continues.

“It’s really been a story of hard work, sacrifice, sweat and good fortune,” he said, “but now we’re fighting the State of California.”

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