New regulations may force goat herding companies to shut down

You’ve seen them on hillsides, goats eating away at the overgrown brush, especially this year, with vegetation exploding after a wet winter. 

For years, it’s been part of California’s arsenal to reduce wildfire risks, especially in hard-to-reach, rocky hillsides. 

Because the goat herders, usually immigrants from Peru, live with the goats at the location they are working, their salary has been factored on a monthly, not hourly basis.  

Michael Choi, CEO of Firegrazers Inc, explains his herders live in a company-provided trailer, with all their living expenses, including a cellphone, covered and a monthly salary of $4,000. 

New state regulations, though, will force him to start paying his workers $14,000 a month by the end of the year.

"It’s undoable," Choi said. "We’ll have to close down."

He echoes other herding companies, which are pushing legislation asking that goatherders remain under the same pay umbrella as sheepherders. But that bill hasn’t yet received a public hearing. 

Choi says he had already raised prices to his customers to cover overtime pay for his employees, but the steep increase of $10,000 more, per employee, per month is not feasible, and will take away a valuable tool to protect neighborhoods from wildfires.

The California Labor Federation, which has been behind the farmworker overtime bills, has been vocal about protecting goatherders, who are usually on work visas from Peru and are vulnerable. 

Goat herders say they welcome scrutiny to make sure conditions are fair, and workers treated fairly, but goatherding is a unique job and not comparable, at least in terms of overtime pay, to a farmworker on the field picking strawberries. 

Arturo, a young man from Peru, lives on a small, clean trailer overlooking the Palos Verdes hillside. He says it’s a lifestyle, not necessarily a job, to watch the 600 or so goats that munch happily away, as two sheepdogs watch over them.  

He says his salary $4,000 a month, is unheard of in the hills of Peru, and while he would always welcome more money (who wouldn’t he says) he’d hate to lose this job because the company closed down altogether. 

"Even worse," he adds. "Would be seeing all these animals go to slaughter."

It would be very real possibility for thousands of goats in the state if goatherding companies have to close down.