Senators finally on board with firefighter pay

In his ongoing efforts to support wildland firefighters, U.S. Senator Jon Tester yesterday backed the bipartisan Wildland Firefighter Paycheck Protection Act to preserve competitive pay for wildland firefighters.

As part of his 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), Tester championed $600 million in temporary pay boosts for wildland firefighters, but these pay increases — for more than 10,000 Forest Service and DOI firefighters — will expire at the end of this fiscal year. The temporary raise boosted firefighter pay by $20,000 — or 50 percent of annual base salary, whichever was lower — and that funding runs out at the end of September. The IIJA, known as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill, was signed into law by President Joe Biden on November 15, 2021. About 16,000 federal firefighters received the temporary raises, according to Fed Manager.

“This is a welcome down payment on a sorely needed continuous investment in our federal wildland fire workforce. Wildfires will continue to impact millions of people across the U.S., and we need to ensure we have wildland firefighters to respond whenever the call is made.” 
 ~ Riva Duncan, vice president, Grassroots Wildland Firefighters

Tester and other members of Congress plan to extend those pay raises and improve recruitment and retention. The new pay scale is more than the GS pay scale under which federal employees are paid. This not only creates a new hourly pay rate and overtime pay rate for wildland firefighters, but it will also be used for their retirement calculations. Currently applicable pay premiums (such as hazard pay and Sunday differential) would still apply.

The new bill requires the Forest Service and the DOI agencies to distribute daily pay supplements to employees when they are working on long-duration wildfires, working on prescribed fires, or deployed away from their duty station for pre-positioning. The daily pay supplement is determined by multiplying one hour of an employee’s basic pay by 4.5 and payments are capped at approximately $160 per day and $9,000 per year.

A bipartisan group led by Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado has now written to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee urging swift consideration of the bill.

“Firefighters deserve fair pay, support for their mental and physical health, and time to recover from their dangerous work. In a future with increasingly catastrophic wildfires, Congress cannot wait to ensure that the federal government has the necessary workforce to protect communities,” they wrote.

“Montana’s wildland firefighters put their lives on the line to protect our communities and public lands, and the least we can do is ensure fair and competitive pay for the work they do,” said Tester. He added that firefighters should be fairly compensated for the dangerous work they do. “This bipartisan bill will make that compensation permanent, and I’ll be fighting to get it across the finish line in Congress.” Tester chairs the Congressional Fire Services Caucus.

This new bill would make the temporary pay raise permanent. The Wildland Firefighter Paycheck Protection Act that was introduced yesterday would codify a base pay raise for those frontline responders. According to the Federal News Network, this new bill came after months of calls from advocacy groups. Though it’s not as comprehensive as Tim’s Act, it’s a good start. “Well, to say we aren’t disappointed that more reforms weren’t included in this bill wouldn’t be truthful,” said Riva Duncan. “But we have to remind ourselves how far we’ve come to get to where we are today. Now the ball is in the legislators’ hands for the WFPPA, and we will continue to remind them to do the right thing for the federal fire management workforce.”

“As climate change brings longer fire seasons and more extreme fire behavior across the West, we must remain steadfast in our commitment to wildland fire preparedness and response,” said Deputy Secretary of the Interior Tommy Beaudreau during a visit to Montana. “Through President Biden’s Investing in America agenda, we are strengthening our wildfire response efforts, providing increased certainty to allow land managers to better prepare for future needs, and ensuring our wildland firefighting workforce is given the respect, compensation, and training support they deserve.”

“It is critical that Congress passes this legislation as soon as possible,” said NFFE National President Randy Erwin. “If the provisions within this law do not pass by September 30, federal wildland firefighters will endure a pay cliff of a 50 percent cut to their base pay up to $20,000. If this happens, a mass exodus will begin that may be impossible to stop. Thankfully, there is a tremendous amount of bipartisan support for the Wildland Firefighter Paycheck Protection Act. In addition to continuing existing practices on pay, the bill recognizes the 24/7 working life of wildland firefighters while on assignment, and it calls attention to the burnout and exhaustion that these firefighters experience throughout the year.”

The full text of the bill is [HERE].