With wildfire season underway in the United States, the federal government is facing a potential exodus of wildland firefighter about big pay cuts that could go into effect in a few months.
President Joe Biden’s 2021 Sponsorship infrastructure law Experts warn there has been a temporary pay rise for thousands of firefighters on the front lines of climate change – but the money will dry up in the coming months, which could put many out of work.
“I honestly think at least a third could be gone within a few months,” said Steve Lenkart, executive director of the National Federation of Federal Employees.
“It will really devastate the country.”
The United States Forest Service (USFS) has about 10,775 wasteland firefighters — 95% of its 11,300 goal for 2023 — and the Department of the Interior, the agency that administers federal and tribal lands, has more than 5,400 employees. such members, the latest official data shows.
Although total figures are difficult to ascertain, the federal government is estimated to be the largest employer of professional wasteland firefighters in the United States.
However, any cuts would trigger a growing labor and climate crisis as hired firefighters leave federal agencies for other jobs and climate change Hotter fuel, drier conditions increase the risk of an out-of-control fire.
Firefighters ‘still fed up’
Rachel Granberg, a wasteland firefighter with eight years of experience in Washington state, has seen many colleagues leave their jobs in the past year or so.
“Even with money for infrastructure, they are fed up – and one of them has been fighting fires for 19 years,” said the 37-year-old, whose statements reflect her own views. rather than her agency’s point of view.
While bushfire firefighters welcome the temporary pay rise, many have worked for years to receive pay that they say doesn’t fully reflect the rigors of their jobs. .
Biden has taken steps in 2021 to raise the minimum wage for federal wasteland firefighters to $15 an hour after criticizing the $13 an hour wage some have offered as “ridiculously low.” .
The infrastructure law also includes $600 million in benefits for federal wasteland firefighters, including temporary pay increases of up to $20,000 per year, or 50 percent of their base salary – depending whichever is lower.
However, federal officials estimate that those funds could dry up by the end of September — when this federal budget year ends — or by mid-October.
Jaelith Hall-Rivera, deputy director of the USFS, said the so-called “wage cliff”, along with budget cuts as proposed in House of Representatives controlled by Republicanswould be “quite catastrophic” for the fire brigade.
“If we can’t change the pay status of our firefighters, … we [going to] see a lot of them go to higher paying jobs where they can make a living,” she told senators at a recent hearing.
“We received information from our fire association that we could lose between 30 and 50 percent of the fire workforce in the Forest Service. That would be very devastating.
Hall-Rivera testifies at the same time Washington, DC, is dealing Poor air quality — a byproduct of the record-breaking wildfires that have ravaged Canada this year.
A USFS spokesperson said the department of agriculture, which has the forestry agency, is committed to working with Congress to pass a permanent payroll solution.
“Federal wasteland firefighters must be provided with the competitive pay and improved wages and working conditions they deserve,” a spokesperson said.
Federal wasteland firefighters are not only leaving state and local firefighting jobs, which may offer better pay and working conditions, but also for other sectors, Lenkart said. including construction and even fast food.
“Some people will work at In-N-Out Burger because they can make $20 an hour,” he said.
Cause for optimism?
Even in the face of a pay cut, several groups who recently met with congressional staffers on Capitol Hill said they were under the impression that lawmakers would be able to find a solution – but warned that the consequences of inaction would be very serious.
In an effort to stem the cuts, several senators introduced a federal bill this week that would increase firefighters’ base pay and provide more pay and vacation time for firefighters. firefighters respond to big forest fire.
“These brave men and women are our first line of defense against disaster, and they have the right to be fairly compensated for the dangerous work they do – including satisfactory recovery time. worth it after a tough fire,” Senator Jon Tester of Montana, one of the bill’s supporters, said in a statement.
However, members of Congress often spend most of the summer away from Washington, DC, leaving them with little time to strike a deal and enact legislation before the new budget year begins in November. ten.
“We will continue… to see the best and brightest walk out the door,” said Luke Mayfield, president of the grassroots Wildland Firefighters advocacy group.
Brian Gold, a Colorado wilderness firefighter, says the real difficulty is being felt at mid-level field leadership and laments the significant shortage of talent and brainpower.
“Some problems can be solved by increasing the base salary,” he said.
“But what is really needed is a holistic approach to the workforce problem, which is really burning through your workforce by requiring them to work overtime and be away from home for extended periods of time. long,” Gold added.
Work more, earn less
A recent study by the University of Washington and the USFS Rocky Mountain Research Station highlighted the stark pay and benefit disparities between federal wilderness firefighters and state firefighters in four Western states. .
According to research that analyzes the states of Washington, Oregon, California and Colorado, federal compensation is on average 40.5% lower than state agencies – even though federal wasteland firefighters spend average 12 days per season for more complex fires.
“Federal firefighters in general are working more, earning less and [are] constantly exposed to danger[s] and the level of accountability is disproportionate to what they are paid compared to some other agencies,” said Evan Pierce, co-author of the report.
— Grassroots Wildland Firefighters (@GrassrootsWFF) June 19, 2023
Similar to the new law, Biden’s 2024 budget proposal calls for additional benefits for firefighters such as a permanent base pay increase and “premium pay” to better compensate first responders for the time they spend on fires. But these will have to win congressional approval.
And even the proposed compensation package in 2024 represents a gap of $8,184 in median salaries between federal wasteland firefighters and the state’s top agency, reports recently. here shows.
USFS is aware that federal wages are not keeping up with state, local and private fire groups in some parts of the country, a spokesperson for the agency said.
Mr. Mayfield left the federal government a few years ago after 18 years with USFS “for an opportunity to have a living income and be able to plan,” he said.
At the end of his USFS service, Mayfield said he dealt with issues related to depression and suicidal ideation, and recalled that in conversations with more than half a dozen colleagues and mentors. question, most people told him to go.
“One of my former general managers, his words to me were: ‘Go, Luke. Do you want to be me?’” Mayfield said. “And my other friend said, ‘We spend all our time worrying about retirement. No one worries about life. Get out.'”