Wildland firefighters meet with Secretary of Labor

They later had meetings at the White House

UPDATED 6:06 p.m. ET March 17, 2022

In addition to meeting on Wednesday with the Secretary of Labor and other Administration officials, today, Thursday, the group of wildland firefighters and National Federation of Federal Employees personnel who traveled to Washington, DC met with two officials at the White House.

They talked with Erika Dinkel-Smith, a former BLM firefighter who worked in Nevada, California, and Oregon while she was going to college. She now works as the White House Director of Labor Engagement. The group also met with Cedric Richmond, who gave up his congressional seat to be a Senior Advisor to the President and the Director of The White House Office of Public Engagement.

“We didn’t have long with Director Richmond, but we did discuss topics many wildland firefighters face, such as low pay, homelessness, and high rates of suicide. We also discussed Tim’s Act”, said smokejumper Ben Elkind. “Cedric had some animated responses when he learned about these issues we face and I’m confident we have many allies in the White House that will push for real reforms within the USFS and DOI. Neither of these people had to meet with us and they were truly interested in our experiences. Really great people who are friendly and approachable, if you can get through security.”

Left to right in the photo above: Justin Mahaffey (USFS Engine Captain), Ethan West – (NFFE), Bob Beckley (NFFE), Max Alonzo – (NFFE), Cedric Richmond (Senior Advisor to the President and the Director of The White House Office of Public Engagement), Randy Erwin (NFFE – President), Ben Elkind (USFS – Smokejumper), Erika Dinkel-Smith (White House Director of Labor Engagement), Hannah Coolidge (USFS Hotshot).

Originally published at 1:27 p.m. ET March 17, 2022

NFFE meets with Secretary of Labor
NFFE meets with Secretary of Labor, March 16, 2022. L to R: Max Alonzo (NFFE), Bob Beckley (NFFE), Hannah Coolidge (USFS Hotshot), Marty Walsh (Sec. Of Labor), Dane Ostler (USFS – Prevention), Ben Elkind (USFS – Smokejumper), Randy Erwin (NFFE – President), and Jeff Friday (NFFE).

Yesterday a group of wildland firefighters and officials from the National Federation of Federal Employees met with the Secretary of Labor and other administration officials in Washington, DC. The NFFE is a union that represents some of the employees in the federal agencies that have land management responsibilities.

Ben Elkind, a smokejumper, told Wildfire Today that they talked with officials and legislative staff members mostly about passing a bill named after Tim Hart, a smokejumper who was killed on a fire in New Mexico last year. The Tim Hart Wildland Firefighter Classification and Pay Parity Act (H.R. 5631), would address many of the heartbreaking issues wildland firefighters and their partners face, including raising firefighter pay, creating a wildland firefighter job series, providing health care and mental health services to temporary and permanent wildland firefighters, as well as housing stipends and other improvements. (More details are in the Wildfire Today article from October 19, 2021.)

The Office of Worker’s Compensation Programs (OWCP) is within the Department of Labor, and has been heavily criticised for slow-walking or failing to appropriately process the claims of firefighters injured on the job. It has not been uncommon for firefighters for the U.S. Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management to resort to asking the public to give them money at GoFundMe because their employer refused to honor the requirement to pay their doctor, hospital, and physical rehabilitation expenses.

“We met with Marty Walsh yesterday, the Secretary of Labor,” Mr. Elkind wrote in an email. “He’s the former mayor of Boston and very pro-labor. We shared some stories about our pay and work/life balance and he was astounded. He promised to bring this up with the President and try to work on legislation, but also acknowledged that the bureaucracy is very real and difficult to maneuver. Marty was very down to earth, and I believe he has our backs moving forward. Hopefully we can get something done this year, but it will be a lot of work.”

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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.

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