Will firefighters EVER get the pay cap removed?

A bill in the U.S. Senate to remove overtime pay caps for wildland firefighters, according to a report by Arizona Public Radio, might remove that cap, after many years of arguing whether fire crews receive  overtime pay when they work overtime hours. Federal crews in both the DOI and the USDA face annual limits on the number of hours of overtime they can work — but they often exceed those limits, and it’s become more of an issue as fire seasons become longer with bigger fires.

Riva Duncan, the vice president of Grassroots Wildland Firefighters, explains that the group has endorsed this legislation. “However, we’ve also highlighted the gaps it does not address,” she says. “While we support lifting this pay cap, the reality is it affects only a few of those at the highest levels (GS-13 and above) engaged in fire management. I spent several years as a Forest Fire Chief and Deputy (GS-12 and GS-13) on high complexity national forests with long, complex fire seasons, and I never hit the cap. But I do know this affects many ICs who are GS-13 or higher — on IMTs as well as NIMO personnel — and it also affects some agency administrators. We believe those folks deserve to be paid for the work they’re doing and the sacrifices they make.”

Duncan explains that this legislation does not lift the biweekly pay cap for hazardous work that’s not officially deemed “emergency,” which  thousands of wildland firefighters and support personnel engage in. “This includes prescribed fire, blowdown cleanup (operating chainsaws in extremely dangerous conditions), and other day-to-day hazardous work such as falling dead trees in campgrounds. Employees earn hazardous duty pay on wildland fires, and on some all-hazard incidents such as hurricanes, but this pay is not authorized by policy for ‘non-emergency’ work.  It is important to acknowledge that while these changes can be accomplished through legislative solutions, it is well within the administrative power of the USFS, OPM, OMB, and the DOI agencies to provide these commonsense solutions for the actual boots on the ground. We challenge the agencies to find the courage to work together on this critical reform, just as firefighters find the courage to do their jobs every day.”
Smith River Complex
2023 Smith River Complex, inciweb photo

According to bill sponsor Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, the Wildland Firefighter Fair Pay Act would ensure firefighters receive the overtime time pay they’re owed. The USFS says up to 500 supervisors either stop working or work on without pay when they reach the pay cap each year.

Back in November, Senator Alex Padilla (D-Calif.) and Representative Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) introduced legislation to permanently raise caps on overtime pay for federal firefighters. The bill would increase the pay caps to compensate federal wildland firefighters for their service. The legislation is cosponsored by Senators Steve Daines (R-Mont.), Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.), Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.), and Jon Tester (D-Mont.).

“As increasingly devastating wildfire seasons scorch our forests and endanger communities across the West, our federal wildland firefighting force deserves our full support,” said Senator Padilla. “The overtime pay caps force firefighters to make an impossible choice: walk off the line or work for free. This legislation is a necessary step to make sure they get fair compensation.”

One of the 2020 fires overran the ICP established to fight one of western Oregon's many wildfires.

In mid-November the House passed an amendment to extend a temporary pay increase of $20,000 (annually per firefighter) through next year, which was approved by President Biden. Another bill to make a pay hike permanent remains stalled, though, and NPR’s Morning Edition reported that this latest budget deal averting a federal  shutdown will also — for now — avert a massive pay cut for federal firefighters.

“Federal wildland firefighters perform dangerous, back-breaking jobs protecting our communities. Yet after they reach pay caps, they receive no overtime pay for the additional hours they work,” said Representative Zoe Lofgren. “This commonsense legislation will strengthen the  workforce and ensure firefighters receive the overtime pay they deserve.” In mid-November, Government Executive reported that the House and then the Senate — and yet again, at the last minute — passed short-term resolutions to avoid a government shutdown and pay employees on time.

But most agencies are funded only through February 2 and some — Veterans Affairs, Agriculture, Energy, Transportation, and Housing and Urban Development (plus construction projects for Defense) will remain at fiscal 2023 funding levels until January 19.

Gray Fire 08/19/23
Gray Fire 08/19/2023 — WSDOT photo

Despite risking their lives and traveling cross-country for months at a time to fight wildfires, many of the 11,000+ federal firefighters live paycheck to paycheck, working overtime hours without overtime pay. This inequity has contributed in a major way to a firefighter workforce shortage — in both recruitment and retention. Something like 20 percent of Forest Service permanent firefighter positions are vacant, and the federal government cannot — or won’t choose to — compete with pay rates  offered by state and local agencies.

Three years ago, Bill Gabbert wrote that Diane Feinstein had introduced the Wildland Firefighter Pay Act, a bill that would raise the maximum limit on overtime pay for federal firefighters. The limit at that time affected higher level employees at the GS-12 and above level, along with  some GS-11s depending on whether they were exempt from provisions in the Fair Labor Standards Act. Under those provisions, if they worked  hundreds of hours of overtime they might reach the cap, after which they earn no more money. In some cases later in the fire season, employees who spent a long season fighting fires were told they’d earned too much and were forced to pay some of it back.

Chris Pietsch shot of Erickson Aircrane on western Oregon's 2023 Bedrock Fire.
Chris Pietsch with the Register-Guard in Eugene caught this superb shot of an Aircrane working the Bedrock Fire, 2023 in Oregon.

Proposed legislation in 2021 would have eliminated the annual and pay period limits and created a new limit that set the maximum annual pay including overtime at Level II of the Executive Schedule, which in 2020 was $197,300.

The USFS estimated then that up to 500 senior-level firefighters either stop participating or do not request pay for hours worked once they reach the cap. This has a huge effect on wildfire response capabilities.

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3 thoughts on “Will firefighters EVER get the pay cap removed?”

  1. Can I just point out the misleading nature of the text in this article? You start off talking about Federal fire crews facing annual limits on the number of OT hours they can work. First, there is no limit to the raw number of OT hours a crew can work. Second, I would love to hear from anyone who is on a crew who has bumped the annual Overtime Pay Cap. This bill does nothing to support “the crews.” If a GS-13 staff officer never hit it, I’m going to guess that not even a GS-9 shot sup dropping mad OT has run into it. It appears from their statements that members of Congress think removing this cap will benefit the tool swingers out there, when in fact it only helps at most the highest paid 4.5 percent of federal firefighters. Certainly they deserve to be paid a fair wage, but they’re not the ones who are sleeping in their trucks because they can’t afford a place to live near where they work, or doing backbreaking physical labor and risking their lives on the line. In a lot of cases they’re sleeping in hotels while the crews are in the dirt on that shadeless county fairground, and they’re working in air conditioned yurts while the crews are busting it in the smoke and heat. Yet your reporting, and the statements from people in Congress seem to make it appear that this bill will do something to aid the groundpounders, when in fact it won’t. In the fourth from last paragraph you say that “many of the 11000+ federal firefighters live paycheck to paycheck [which is true] working overtime hours without overtime pay [which is mostly not true].”

    I’m a little disappointed: while it’s good to advocate for our cause, it shouldn’t be at the expense of accurate reporting.

    1. Thanks a lot, Bill, we appreciate your setting us straight on that. Do send an update if you get time. Still got my email?

  2. I’d heard of the pay-back if you made too much and couldn’t believe my ears. What a crock of B.S. as far as I’m concerned. One volunteers for long hours and is away from home so they should be paid. Unbelievable.


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