Federal firefighters are awaiting pay increases they hope will fill their ranks.

Over a decade the Forest Service has been struggling with retention and recruitment issues.

NewsEditor
NewsEditor
11 June 2022 Saturday 04:17
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Federal firefighters are awaiting pay increases they hope will fill their ranks.

Over a decade the Forest Service has been struggling with retention and recruitment issues. This has led to a shrinking workforce, worsening fire seasons, and increasing pressure from the Biden administration to reduce wildfire risk in the West.

Federal wildland firefighters are currently battling another record-breaking fire season. President Joe Biden visited New Mexico on Saturday to visit the two biggest wildfires in New Mexico history, the Calf Canyon Hermits Peak Fire in Santa Fe National Forest and Black Fire in Gila National Forest. According to the Agriculture Department, fire seasons are getting longer and more difficult to manage, leading to intense "fireyears."

Firefighters are also responsible for carrying out the 10-year administration's plan to reduce wildfire risk. This would include increasing work on 50,000,000 additional acres.

Despite the fact that the salaries, benefits, and staffing levels have remained low, morale has been severely affected. Congress and the Biden administrations have taken action but the agency and Congress are still waiting for solutions.

Federal wildland firefighters can be found in the Agriculture and Interior departments and within agencies which fall under their jurisdictions, such as the Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the Bureau of Land Management. This unique workforce acts as the first line defense for public lands. They can also travel across borders and states to fight fires.

NPR has received May's staffing data from the Forest Service. It shows that six of nine regions have levels of staffing below the peak in July, which was around 11,480 employees. California is 15% below and the Pacific Northwest is 24% below.

According to the Forest Service, a wide range of factors are responsible for the shortages. These include non-competitive wages and a lack of affordable housing.

NPR obtained data on California's May fire-fighter rates. It shows that the state has 1,637 open positions.

"Already, in Oregon, there's a 20% vacancy rate for these positions, and Western states are actually trying t borrow firefighters from each others," stated Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) during Thursday's hearing with Chief Forest Service Randy Moore. "Chief that is a recipe to trouble."

Randy Erwin, President of the National Federation of Federal Employees, a union representing most federal wildland firefighters, wrote to Biden on June 1st, requesting immediate action to raise wages for federal wildland firefighters.

Erwin wrote that firefighters who don't get the raise will feel undervalued, and will most likely quit. "Recruitment and retention at these locations will be difficult to manage, which would severely compromise our nation's ability fight wildfires in the United States and protect communities."

In 2010, lawmakers questioned officials about the staff shortages. This included senior-level firefighters. While staff shortages continue, the cost of living has risen and wages elsewhere have increased aEUR", putting at risk federal responses to wildfires and their prevention.

Moore has been asked questions by senators and representatives about staffing capacity, wages, and other topics at nearly every hearing he has attended since taking up his position last summer. Federal firefighting organizations have taken to social media to advertise for positions.

Moore informed lawmakers Thursday that the department had hired 10,184 firefighters as of June. Moore stated that this is 90 percent of the 11,300 firefighters he had targeted for this year.

NPR shared the breakdown of vacant positions. Region 1, which includes some of Idaho, Montana, and North Dakota, has fallen 13 percent since its peak. Region 4, which contains more of Idaho and Nevada, is down 9 percent. Region 3, New Mexico, Arizona, and Region 3 are down 6 and 6 respectively. Region 2, which includes more Wyoming, Colorado and South Dakota, Nebraska, and Kansas, is down 3 percent.

Some regions, such as the Southeast, Northeast, and Alaska, have staffing levels that are 12 to 30% higher than last year's peak.

Moore cited the 90 percent statistic aEUR" in a May hearing. He also said that while offers were being made, the department is facing declinations because they cannot compete with companies and industries that pay higher wages.

Advocates are skeptical about the 90% statistic, as they believe it could be misleading. They say that this could include people who haven't started yet, won't show up, or have applied for and secured jobs in multiple locations.

"People would apply in October, and we would hire them in December. They don't come on board until May so by that time most people have already found another job. So we considered someone hired. But you don't know if they will be there until that day," Maximo Alonzo (NFFE representative) said. He used to manage temporary employees.

D-Calif. Rep. Katie Porter told NPR that Moore has been previously questioned about staffing levels. She also said that her office is aware of areas that are lacking in staffing.

Porter stated, "The truth is that we are dealing with an workforce that was built for the age of before we had year-round extreme weather or fire season." It's bad news for firefighters, for natural resources, and for taxpayers. It's costly to need to hire contractors or hire firefighters from another fire department. The worse the staffing situation is, the higher the cost to taxpayers. We must be ready for what lies ahead.

Biden announced last summer that the federal minimum wage for wildland firefighters would be increased to $15 an hour, or about $31,000 per year. Before that, entry-level firefighters made about $13 an hour. Many firefighters who leave the federal government find better-paying jobs in state and private organizations. California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection offers entry-level firefighters a salary of $55,000 per year, which does not include overtime or hazard pay.

Workers, workers, and agency leaders lauded the $2 increase, but many disagree that it is enough. Overtime pay can be over 1000 hours per summer for firefighters. This is a risky move in a job that could cause injuries or prolonged absences. Some firefighters have been suggested by their managers to start a GoFundMe account or refer them to charities in order to offset the loss of income.

Federal wildland firefighters have been working for 15 years and said that the $15 was inadequate. They spoke anonymously out of fear of reprisal. "That's the federal minimum wage. It doesn't make sense to pay wildland firefighters who do extremely dangerous work and have unusual schedules. This is especially true considering the importance of their work.

In November, Biden signed the bipartisan infrastructure bill into law. The bill provided $600 million to the Agriculture and Interior Departments for increased wages of firefighters. The bill specifically provided $480 million for USDA's Forest Service, which would create a "pay Supplement" for workers that is equal to $20,000 or 50% of their salaries.

Officials estimate that the money will last for about two years. It will also be retroactive to October 2021. Moore stated that checks will begin to be issued by the end the month, as Moore indicated during Thursday's hearing.

"While the pay provision in bipartisan infrastructure law was really important, it's not permanent fix," Jaelith Hall Rivera, Deputy Forest Service Chief, said during a Forest Service employees-only town hall that took place on May 25, for which NPR obtained the recording. "And we know this and our goal is to achieve a permanent increase in pay for wildland firefighters.

The bill calls for pay increases in areas that are difficult to retain and recruit. Hall-Rivera stated during the town hall that officials are trying to make this definition as inclusive and broad as possible.

During Thursday's hearing, Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) told Moore that "I will tell you what this geographic area is: The United States of America." Tell Tom Vilsack, Agriculture Secretary. Anyone in the room could tell. It is difficult to keep and hire firefighters in any part of the world, especially in the West.

However, Congress placed the requirement for geographic retention and recruitment even though Vilsack will ultimately determine who is eligible for the supplemental pay.

Advocates urge Vilsack to declare all areas that are difficult to recruit and retain, so that he can quickly provide the funds and then move on to finding a permanent solution.

It's not a raise. It is actually a stipend. Kelly Martin, president and CEO of Grassroots Wildland Firefighters (an advocacy group advocating for higher wages), said that it's a supplement. It doesn't affect their hourly wages. It doesn't affect their retirement savings.

Bipartisan infrastructure legislation also required that the Office of Personnel Management create a new series of classifications for federal wildland firefighters. This could potentially increase some of their wages.

On the May 25th call, officials informed firefighters that there were still many unanswered questions. OPM must complete the new series of firefighter training within 180 days after the law is enacted. Forest Service employees and officials will not have access to a draft of the new work series, but only the finalized version due to the increased timeframe.

Employees were told by officials that they are still trying to figure out how to proceed when the funding for the infrastructure bill runs out and the pay supplement stops aEUR." This effectively creates a wage cliff. One option is to request a special rate of salary and have it implemented in time for the funding run out.

Officials noted that even this has its limitations, such as the need to ensure that Congress provides additional funding for salaries in order to support wage increases.

The Forest Service requested $1.15 billion in the budget request for next fiscal year. However, lawmakers will create their own legislation, regardless of what the budget requests.

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