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.

Senators introduce overtime pay raise bill as fiscal cliff nears

Congress temporarily averted a wildland firefighter pay cliff when it narrowly stopped a government shutdown at the end of September. As that stop-gap nears its expiration on November 17, senators are making new pushes to increase wildland firefighter pay.

Nevada Senators Jacky Rosen and Cortez Masto introduced the “Wildland Firefighter Fair Pay Act,” which would permanently raise firefighter pay caps. The legislation, if passed, would also expand eligible employment to NWS meteorologists deployed with firefighters and would require a report from the USDA and DOI and NWS on necessary staffing levels of wildland firefighters and meteorologists.

The senators had previously written a letter to legislators urging them to include a permanent salary increase for wildland firefighters in the government funding bill.

“Nevada’s wildland firefighters are heroes who keep our communities safe,” Rosen said. “We must provide them with the pay they deserve, and I’m glad to help introduce this bipartisan legislation to permanently increase their overtime pay caps.”

The bill isn’t the only piece of legislation trying to improve  conditions for wildland firefighters. The Wildland Firefighter Paycheck Protection Act (WFPPA) would authorize premium pay for federal firefighters portal-to-portal whenever they respond to an incident. The act was introduced to Congress before the shutdown was temporarily averted, but was never voted on.

There were 11,187 wildland firefighters (of GS-9 and below) employed through the USFS as of July 25, the according to the agency website. Funding proposed for the next fiscal year would reportedly support the hiring of 970 more firefighter positions, but Congress has yet to make that budget a reality.

If neither bill is approved by November 17, when the government shutdown stopgap is set to expire, wildland firefighter pay will be reduced by either 50 percent of current salary or by $20,000 annually, whichever is lower. It’s expected that the reduction could lead to a third of wildland firefighters walking off the job, according to the employee union and others.


Poor Timing for Government Shutdown and Federal Firefighters

Guest Post
By Billy Durst

Another government shutdown looms. No one knows whether it will happen, or how long it might last if it does happen. Based on the current conflicts in Congress, particularly between House Republicans and their speaker Kevin McCarthy, many people’s gut instinct tells them that it will. The last government shutdown, in 2019, was 35 days (the longest in U.S. history), and if that is any indication of how long this might last, government employees could be facing another record-breaking furlough.

The timing couldn’t be worse for one particular group of federal employees — federal wildland firefighters, who are anxiously hoping that Congress will pass legislation that would permanently raise firefighter pay. The proposed legislation is not all that they’d hoped for, and not all that they need to make their pay commensurate with their work, but it is clear that it is all they are going to get — if they get it.

A potential worst-case scenario exists for two reasons. Reason one: temporary cash bonus payments put in place by the Biden administration, amounting to a 50 percent raise, have been in place for over a year. These temporary “retention allowances” targeting the federal wildland workforce’s retention issues, amid historically devastating fire years, are set to expire in October.

Numbers Fire Nevada wildfire Carson City Minden
Numbers Fire, July 6, 2020. Photo by Tallac Hotshots.

Reason two: if the government shutdown occurs as the existing government funding regime expires, also come October, federal wildland firefighters will be forced to continue working throughout the furlough, knowing that when the shutdown itself eventually expires, they will be returning to a 50 percent pay cut.

The best-case scenario is that the government does not shut down, that Congress passes and Biden signs the legislation in a timely manner, and that federal wildland firefighters receive the 30 percent permanent pay increase proposed by the pending legislation. No matter what happens come October, these federal firefighters will receive at least a 20 percent reduction in pay. This inevitable pay reduction of 20-50 percent will occur despite the fact that firefighters’ work is more necessary than ever before, while it is common knowledge among firefighters that the majority of, for example, California federal firefighters could earn higher hourly wages working as fast-food employees.

Redding Hotshots Trail Mountain Fire
The Redding Hotshots conduct a safety briefing before beginning their assignment on the Trail Mountain Fire. U.S. Forest Service photo.

Morale among the workforce is low. Cynicism abounds regarding the intentions of agency leaders to be sensitive to our needs, of their competency to advocate on our behalf, and of Congress to perform their responsibilities required not only to keep the government functioning, but also to pass the legislation needed to partially counteract the federal firefighter retention crisis. These federal employees feel righteous indignation in the face of attacks on the value of their labor, and the words-not-action stance of their leaders.

To make a distressing situation darkly comedic, a recent “system error” saw federal firefighters across the country receive notices through their government personnel system that they were to receive pay raises of nearly 100 percent. Had the agencies somehow decided to work around Congress and come through with the necessary pay increases just in the nick of time, before the temporary bonuses ran out? An agency email a few days later clarified that they had not, and a bureaucratic apology followed the inexplicable “system error.” The ironic timing of this mistake was not lost on federal firefighters.

Whether or not these public servants will endure another record-breaking furlough in the face of record-breaking wildfires, or whether their permanent pay increase will be lost within the machinations of a Congressional “system error,” remains to be seen.

No excuse for neglecting firefighter pay

Grassroots Wildland Firefighters

This week Grassroots President Luke Mayfield sent a letter to USDA leadership and key Congressional members concerning the lack of movement on the Wildland Firefighter Pay Protection Act — here’s an excerpt from the letter.

“The debate over the remaining funds from the Bipartisan lnfrastructure Law is a distraction to conjure false narratives; one is administrative mismanagement and the other that the federal wildland workforce is not facing a fiscal cliff. Rather than action to address the crisis at hand, these arguments try to avoid accountability for the lack of leadership, which could bring thousands of wildland firefighters to the brink of a pay cliff.”

The federal wildland firefighter workforce can no longer be sacrificed without long-term and catastrophic consequences. Workforce and systemic reforms must become congressional and administrative priorities.

The purpose of the letter is to clearly outline and document our intent for agency leadership and Congressional decision-makers.

To read the entire letter for perspective on what’s going on in the Capitol, click [HERE]. Our organization wants to make sure stakeholders are not misguided by rumors or false narratives from named or unnamed sources.

Thank you,
Grassroots Wildland Firefighters
PO BOX 51253
Sparks, Nevada 89435

Firefighters need a raise in pay

Federal firefighters have for years put up with both low pay — starting at just $15 an hour for entry-level positions — and a high-pressure job that takes a heavy toll mentally and keeps them away from their homes and families. Hundreds of them have left federal service, and hundreds more will likely leave next month if a permanent federal pay increase is not approved by Congress.

This fall, as reported by The Guardian, pay issues are coming to a head. A temporary pay increase, effected as part of Biden’s 2021 infrastructure bill, will expire at the end of September. Without that pay increase, the U.S. risks  a crisis of firefighter burnout and falling retention while fires increasingly burn larger, hotter, and for longer than they have in decades.

Lone Peak Hotshots, Cerro Pelado Fire, northern New Mexico. 2022 inciweb photo.
Lone Peak Hotshots, Cerro Pelado Fire, northern New Mexico. 2022 inciweb photo.

Congress has two weeks to enact a long-term fix. If they fail, federal land management agencies may be left to navigate another mass exodus from the essential workforce just as autumn winds increase risks across the West.

As the Federal News Network recently reported, wildland firefighters are meeting with congressional leaders this week to add urgency to pending legislation that would install a permanent pay raise. The $600 million that funded the two-year pay boost runs out at the end of September.

Back in July, Grassroots Wildland Firefighters launched a petition to tell Congress what’s at stake if they don’t enact a permanent pay solution. In just a week, more than 11,000 wildland firefighters and others signed their names and described what will happen if Congress fails to act. A sample of signers’ responses:

    • “30-50% of the firefighting force will leave unless signed, including myself. I have bills to pay, I love this job but unless things change, I can’t afford to do it.”
    •  “I worry that with this pay cut we will lose our hard-working wildland firefighters, and the land that so many of us love and recreate in will be unprotected and destroyed.”
    •  “One third of the permanent fire employees I know will have to leave the wildland fire profession to pay their mortgage.”
    •  “As a fire family, this would hit us hard. These men and women who battle fires daily to prevent homes from being burned deserve the most.”
    •  “Thousands of firefighters walking off the job. Many of us are planning for what happens if they do nothing.”
    •  “15 years of firefighting and my nephew makes more working at Panda Express. It’s time to recognize our firefighters for what they do and the sacrifice they have put forth to protect public lands.”

“Firefighters don’t want accolades, they don’t need to be called heroes,” says Riva Duncan, a retired USFS fire officer and vice-president of the Grassroots Wildland Firefighters advocacy group. “But they want to at least be treated like they are appreciated for the risks they take and the sacrifices they make.”

ZigZag Hotshots crewmember sharpens chainsaw on Moose Fire, July 24, 2022 by Mike McMillan-USFS
ZigZag Hotshots crewmember sharpens chainsaw on Moose Fire, July 24, 2022 by Mike McMillan-USFS

Biden’s temporary pay bump — which added either $20,000 or a 50 percent increase to firefighter paychecks, whichever was less — was intended as a short-term fix to buy Congress time to pass a permanent solution to the problems that have for years left federal firefighters underpaid and overworked.

The National Federation of Federal Employees, the union that represents many wildland firefighters, said without a permanent solution, there will be a “mass exodus” of firefighters, which would only exacerbate retention challenges that are already increasingly difficult for the four  Department of the Interior agencies and the Forest Service; all five agencies employ roughly 17,000 wildland firefighters combined.

That story in the Guardian, by Gabrielle Canon, is WELL WORTH the read — and thanks to Nancy for the tip.

Without the passage of new legislation, federal firefighters will see major reductions to their paychecks starting October 1. Some workers’ pay will be cut back to $15 per hour. … California lawmakers, by the way, just passed a bill that would make $20 an hour the minimum pay for fast-food workers in the state. You can sign the Grassroots petition to Congress [HERE].

Wildland firefighter pay may be cut at month’s end – or not

Nearing a congressional deadline, one bill is making its way through the nation’s legislature attempting to stop a tens-of-thousands of dollars’ reduction to wildland firefighter pay.

A previously enacted federal wildland firefighter pay increase is set to expire on October 1, an increase that would subsequently reduce firefighter pay by either 50 percent of their current salary or by $20,000, whichever was lower. This federal pay increase was first granted in August 2021 as part of the Biden Administration’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021, but the raise itself was only a temporary measure.

Without prompt action from Congress, federal firefighters are facing five-figure pay cuts next month.

A piece of legislation that has been introduced to Congress, the Wildland Firefighter Paycheck Protection Act (WFPPA), would stop the decrease from taking effect by permanently increasing wildland firefighter pay. This Act would authorize premium pay for federal firefighters portal-to-portal whenever they respond to a wildfire, prescribed burn, severity incident, or an incident that the Secretary of Agriculture or the Secretary of the Interior determines is similar in nature. Premium pay would not be paid to wildland firefighters during an initial response or initial attack fire if the wildfire is contained within 36 hours. If passed, the pay scale and premium pay regulation would take effect on October 1, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

The USFS employee union has warned that Cal Fire and other non-fed firefighter employers are anticipating that a third of federal firefighters could likely walk because they’re fed up with their paycheck uncertainty.

A similar bill was introduced to the U.S. House of Representatives in October 2021, but it never got past its introduction.

Tim Hart
Tim Hart

The Tim Hart Wildland Firefighter Classification and Pay Parity Act, named after a smokejumper who died while parachuting into the Eicks Fire in New Mexico earlier that year, would establish a pay scale that would increase yearly and institute hazard pay for wildland firefighters.

But the WFPPA, along with numerous other bills, is threatened by yet another pending government shutdown — if lawmakers can’t also allocate funding to the other 437 government agencies for this fiscal year.

In the event of a shutdown, thousands of federal workers would be furloughed without pay.

Grassroots Wildland Firefighters

There were 11,187 wildland firefighters (GS-9 and below) employed through the USFS as of July 25, the agency says on its website. Funding proposed for the next fiscal year would reportedly support the hiring of 970 more firefighter positions, but Congress has to make that budget a reality.

“We struggle to hire and retain firefighters in areas of the country where the labor pool is low and pay isn’t as competitive as we would like,” they said. “Our goal is for firefighters to have a sustainable, long-term career that rewards them for the unique and hazardous work they do.”

The USFS is hoping to hire around 150 new firefighters in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska area. Interested in applying? Click here to see the positions’ full details.