Congress averts firefighter pay cliff and national shutdown

The U.S. House of Representatives and Senate both passed a bill late Saturday, September 30 to keep federal agencies fully funded, effectively averting a government shutdown. A provision in the bill also temporarily keeps wildland firefighter pay at its current rate.

The passed bill, H.R. 5860, makes specific mention of averting the looming mass exodus of wildland firefighters that would have resulted from the expiration of a 2021 pay increase.

“Amounts made available by section 101 for Department of the Interior — Department-Wide Programs — Wildland Fire Management and Department of Agriculture — Forest Service — Wildland Fire Management shall be available for the federal wildland firefighter base salary increase provided under section 40803(d)(4)(B) of Public Law 117–58 and may be apportioned up to the rate for operations necessary to continue to fund such base salary increase,” the bill’s text reads.

Wildland firefighters aren’t out of the woods yet. While the bill is set to be signed by President Biden before the October 1 deadline, it funds the government for only 45 days as legislators continue debating what to do with federal finances. The pay cliff’s new deadline is November 17.

Shutdown ends — possibly only temporarily

With the signing of the legislation Friday evening that funds the government for three weeks, the federal land management agencies are preparing to resume normal operations.

Saturday morning the U.S. Forest Service said, “All furloughed federal employees are required to return to work on their next regularly scheduled work day.”

The National Park Service issued a statement Friday: “Following the enactment of the continuing resolution, the National Park Service is preparing to resume regular operations nationwide though the schedule for individual parks may vary depending on staff size and complexity of operations.”

If no agreement is reached for longer term funding, the government will partially shut down again on February 15th.

Full time and seasonal firefighters describe how the shutdown affects them — Chapter 5

Britania Mountain Fire Wyoming
Firefighters conduct a firing operation to remove the fuel along Palmer Canyon Road on the Britania Mountain Fire in Wyoming. Uploaded to InciWeb September 2, 2018.

On Friday January 25 both the House of Representatives and the Senate passed a measure that would reopen the Departments of Agriculture and Interior as well as the other closed agencies, but for only a three-week period. The President signed the bill Friday evening. Hopefully before the three-week period expires, the politicians who are paid to develop a federal budget will do their jobs.

As this was written Friday night, the date the closed agencies will reopen has not been released. The U.S. Forest Service information page about the shutdown has not been revised to reflect the changes, but probably will be soon.

Even with this good news for the unpaid workers, it could be a while before they see their next paycheck. However, back pay for the shutdown period has already be authorized by a recent act of Congress.

Shutdown Story, Chapter 5

Below is the fifth in a series of articles in which we let firefighters and other land management agency employees associated with wildland fire describe in their own words how the partial shutdown of the federal government that began December 22 is affecting them. They all requested to remain anonymous.

Chapter 5, below, has been lightly edited.

This is what we heard from a Bureau of Land Management employee on January 8, 2019:

“It’s affecting me with stress about my finances since I have no clue when the shutdown will end. And I really want get back to work since I was been on Annual Leave on and off during the last two months.

“February and March tend to have a lot of meetings and training in my field which could be impacted since we are not in the office to know about them and make the travel arrangements.“For BLM in Nevada, I know hiring is affected because we can’t pull the lists of applicants or review them. We were able to get the list for one vacant position before the shutdown but now we can’t do anything with it because of the shutdown. The Region 4 Fire Hire has been postponed, which affects another job in my office.”

And on January 23, 2019 we received an update from the same person:

“I will be missing 2nd paycheck on Tuesday. I have pretty much stopped all my spending except for essential (food, medical, bills). I am trying to stay positive, but as it continues that gets harder. However, trying to help keep up the mood of my friends who are also furloughed, does help.

“I’m lucky that I have savings to get me to March but I can’t plan anything past mid-February since I have no clue what my work schedule will be. Overall, I’m just frustrated with the situation and really want to get back to work.”

Another employee, a seasonal, who had been worried about the firefighting job he applied for sent us this:

“I received some paperwork from the agency as well as my tentative selection notice. I’m supposed to be completing my background check this week but the fingerprint kit is being sent to the wrong address and I have no way of contacting anyone to get the issue resolved because of the shutdown. It’s a bit frustrating and I’m starting to be concerned about whether or not I’ll have the opportunity to complete S-131 Advanced Firefighter training this spring.”

All of the shutdown stories can all be found at the tag “shutdown stories.”

Firefighter shutdown stories — Chapter 4

Martin Creek Fire
The Martin Creek Fire south of Jackson, Wyoming, September 16, 2018. InciWeb.

This is the fourth in a series of articles in which we let firefighters and other land management agency employees associated with wildland fire describe in their own words how the partial shutdown of the federal government that began December 22 is affecting them. They all requested to remain anonymous.

Chapter 4, below, has been lightly edited.

“My Fire Management Officer has contacted all of his subordinates, giving us advice on how to apply for unemployment insurance. In all my years of working, I have never had to do that. Sorta makes one feel useless and to an extent worthless. I’m ready, willing, and want to work, but because of the shutdown, I can’t.

“The worst part of this shutdown is not knowing. I guess that’s true about everything in life and our job, but THIS unknowing seems worse. We have no control over the situation. Pawns in a f’ing chess game amongst babies.

“There is no way that unemployment insurance would cover my now grownup costs with the kids, etc. The savings that we do have, is dwindling, the house and land that we were going to be getting this spring, well that dream is gone.

“Each day my wife looks at me and without having to say it anymore, I get the “how much longer” look. She wants me to find another job, with a state agency or even private. The problem with private is, they aren’t full time. Problem with a state agency — I’m starting over, new retirement new (better or worse?) health coverage.

“Tension over not bringing in money is causing us to argue a little more each day, purchases have come to a stop, but we still have to buy food, diapers, and clothes because even though we have no money coming in, our two kids still get hungry, they still have their needs as they grow.

“I don’t want to change jobs, I don’t want to move. But, how much longer can I continue to say that?”

Chapter 5 will be published January 26.  All of the shutdown stories can all be found at the tag “shutdown stories.”

Federal firefighters describe how the shutdown affects them — Chapter 3

Terwilliger Fire
Terwilliger Fire in western Oregon, August 24, 2018. Inciweb photo.

During the partial government shutdown approximately half of the 10,000 wildland firefighters that work for the U.S. Forest Service are being forced to work for no pay. The other 5,000 are furloughed and not working — they are also not being paid. An unknown number are in similar situations that work for the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service, and Bureau of Indian Affairs — all within the Department of the Interior.

After the partial government shutdown is over, they will be paid as authorized in legislation passed last week, whether they worked during the shutdown or not. But until then, the five land management agencies in the Departments of Agriculture and Interior are limping along day to day with skeleton staffing unable to spend any funds that have not already been appropriated. It remains to be seen how the agencies will react under these conditions to a large wildland fire or other emergency that requires the quick, efficient, and possibly long-term mobilization of large numbers of firefighters to protect lives and property.

This is the third in a series of articles in which we let firefighters and other land management agency employees associated with wildland fire describe in their own words how the partial government shutdown that began December 22 is affecting them. They all requested to remain anonymous.

Chapter 3, below, is from a U.S. Forest Service employee and has been lightly edited.

“Being without a paycheck is a huge problem — we are looking at our budget and cutting back on numerous items. I made reservations and flights to be at an upcoming meeting that I can’t cancel without huge losses.

“Our contractors have done everything they can and are now being laid off. They will never get paid back. This has huge impacts to all of the work we do.

“I am getting offers for interviews and potential job offers daily.

“My staff is running out of money to cover food and gas. I am taking out payroll furlough loans to keep afloat. My bank isn’t sure if they will do anymore furlough loans after this next one. If they stop, then I have to sign up for unemployment. Department of the Interior employees were called back to sign another 30-day furlough letter. None of the US Forest Service  staff that I know have been asked to do so yet. My Supervisor says they are trying to figure out how to contact all of us. Crappy planning in USFS, as compared to DOI. My supervisor mentioned they are looking at calling back more staff – unpaid work. Apparently there is pressure to put fire efforts back to work… like training and planning.

“There are now three types of furloughed employees… exempt (essential), partially exempt (partially essential) and unexempt (not essential). I have no idea, nor have seen any documentation on what partially exempt means. Either way all of us are not getting paid.

“Needless to say so many of us are demoralized, feeling worthless, and we are hostages to this crap. Trump says nothing in his speech and clearly doesn’t care how much he hurts people. His tweet was insulting. He is a bully and doing anything he can to get his way.”

Chapters 4 and 5 will be published January 25 and 26.  All of the shutdown stories can all be found at the tag “shutdown stories.”

Federal government still has not paid workers damages awarded from a lawsuit after the shutdown in 2013

White House seeks list of programs that would be hurt if shutdown lasts into March

US Department of Agriculture
Bill Gabbert photo.

After the last major shutdown of the federal government in 2013 which lasted for 16 days, a class action lawsuit was filed and won by employees who were forced to work and who signed on to the litigation. All employees received the back pay they missed, but the judge awarded additional liquidated damages as well to the 25,000 who proactively signed onto the case and worked during the period. The government still has not paid the damages ordered by the judge.

More than 200,000 employees  were forced to work in 2013. Approximately 800,000 are not being paid during the current shutdown that began December 22, 2018, and about half of those are being told they have to continue working.

A Senate Appropriations Committee report estimates that as many as 5,000 U.S. Forest Service firefighters may be working now without pay. A USDA spokesperson said an official shutdown plan ensures that workers “essential to protect life and property” remain on duty.

government shutdowns dates

In February, 2017 U.S. Court of Federal Claims Judge Patricia Campbell-Smith ordered compensation for the 2013 shutdown alleging a violation of the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act. The delay in compensation for the damages, the government said, is due to the difficulty in obtaining pay records and then applying that data to the formula for payment.

The lawsuit was filed for the employees by Heidi Burakiewicz, an attorney at the law firm Mehri & Skalet.

Below is an excerpt from an article at Govexec:

The plaintiffs [from the 2013 shutdown] will likely receive an amount in the neighborhood of $7.25—the federal minimum wage—times the number of hours worked between Oct. 1 and Oct. 5, 2013, the period in which paychecks were delayed. This amounts to $290 for employees who worked eight-hour days, plus any overtime they are due.

After the court’s 2014 ruling, federal agencies were forced to notify hundreds of thousands of federal workers of their eligibility to join the suit. FLSA-exempt workers, such as teachers, nurses and high-level managers, and those who earned more than $290 on Sept. 29 (a Sunday) and Sept. 30 were not entitled to join the case.

The same attorney who won the 2013 case has filed a class action lawsuit against the federal government over the current government shutdown.

Employees being forced to work for no pay could possibly find temporary or even permanent work elsewhere if they were allowed to. It can be difficult to continue going to a non-paying job while incurring costs for commuting, gasoline, rent, house or car payments, medical bills, car repairs, day care, and food.


The Washington Post reported today that the White House is putting together a list of federal programs that would be hurt if the shutdown lasts into March.

White House acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney has pressed agency leaders to provide him with a list of the highest-impact programs that will be jeopardized if the shutdown continues into March and April, people familiar with the directive said.

Mulvaney wants the list no later than Friday, these people said, and it’s the firmest evidence to date that the White House is preparing for a lengthy funding lapse that could have snowballing consequences for the economy and government services.