Federal firefighters describe how the shutdown affects them — Chapter 3

Terwilliger Fire
Terwilliger Fire in western Oregon, August 24, 2018. Inciweb photo.

During the partial government shutdown approximately half of the 10,000 wildland firefighters that work for the U.S. Forest Service are being forced to work for no pay. The other 5,000 are furloughed and not working — they are also not being paid. An unknown number are in similar situations that work for the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service, and Bureau of Indian Affairs — all within the Department of the Interior.

After the partial government shutdown is over, they will be paid as authorized in legislation passed last week, whether they worked during the shutdown or not. But until then, the five land management agencies in the Departments of Agriculture and Interior are limping along day to day with skeleton staffing unable to spend any funds that have not already been appropriated. It remains to be seen how the agencies will react under these conditions to a large wildland fire or other emergency that requires the quick, efficient, and possibly long-term mobilization of large numbers of firefighters to protect lives and property.

This is the third in a series of articles in which we let firefighters and other land management agency employees associated with wildland fire describe in their own words how the partial government shutdown that began December 22 is affecting them. They all requested to remain anonymous.

Chapter 3, below, is from a U.S. Forest Service employee and has been lightly edited.

“Being without a paycheck is a huge problem — we are looking at our budget and cutting back on numerous items. I made reservations and flights to be at an upcoming meeting that I can’t cancel without huge losses.

“Our contractors have done everything they can and are now being laid off. They will never get paid back. This has huge impacts to all of the work we do.

“I am getting offers for interviews and potential job offers daily.

“My staff is running out of money to cover food and gas. I am taking out payroll furlough loans to keep afloat. My bank isn’t sure if they will do anymore furlough loans after this next one. If they stop, then I have to sign up for unemployment. Department of the Interior employees were called back to sign another 30-day furlough letter. None of the US Forest Service  staff that I know have been asked to do so yet. My Supervisor says they are trying to figure out how to contact all of us. Crappy planning in USFS, as compared to DOI. My supervisor mentioned they are looking at calling back more staff – unpaid work. Apparently there is pressure to put fire efforts back to work… like training and planning.

“There are now three types of furloughed employees… exempt (essential), partially exempt (partially essential) and unexempt (not essential). I have no idea, nor have seen any documentation on what partially exempt means. Either way all of us are not getting paid.

“Needless to say so many of us are demoralized, feeling worthless, and we are hostages to this crap. Trump says nothing in his speech and clearly doesn’t care how much he hurts people. His tweet was insulting. He is a bully and doing anything he can to get his way.”

Chapters 4 and 5 will be published January 25 and 26.  All of the shutdown stories can all be found at the tag “shutdown stories.”

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.

One thought on “Federal firefighters describe how the shutdown affects them — Chapter 3”

  1. I too am a federal employee, working under DOI. I left a state agency to come here, and even today I have no regrets in doing so. The opportunities that have been presented to me are far greater than what they were with the State. The grass is not always greener on the other side.

    I have read numerous accounts of federal employees who are now feeling worthless, or shameful for being out of work, or needing unemployment assistance. Really I say? Why? Do you honestly get paid enough (when we are paid) to let bureaucrats dictate how YOU feel in your personal life? Sure the lack of immediate income is a drag, I agree. I would rather be spending my savings on frivolous unneeded new shiny MTB parts, instead of my utility bill. But guess what, we lay off so many of our employees every year, they survive, and don’t feel shame or worthless. Sure ours is “unexpected”, but this job has always been about being fluid and dynamic, and finding away around an obstacle. This should be no different. You’re furloughed, GOOD, quit sulking, persevere and be productive in other ways, improve yourself where you can. You’re not a GS3 anymore.


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