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.