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.

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].