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Federal firefighters face steep pay cuts over the next month as a 2021 salary increase expires Sept. 30 and lawmakers from both parties scramble to prevent a mass exodus from the rank-and-file.
The Forest Service has roughly $30 million left in the pot of money Congress approved in the bipartisan infrastructure law (Public Law 117-58) almost two years ago to boost pay for thousands of wildland firefighters, Marissa Perry, deputy communications director for the Agriculture Department, said. That amount will stretch about five more weeks, including two more pay periods, she said.
The Forest Service, whose parent agency is Agriculture, employs the bulk of the federal firefighting workforce.
“Without a permanent pay fix that creates certainty for our federal firefighters at both the Forest Service and the Department of the Interior, we will continue to lose these employees to other, higher paying jobs which leave communities, wildlife and public safety in jeopardy,” Perry said.
Republicans, Democrats, union leaders, and government officials have been sounding the alarm for months about the need to extend the temporary pay fix for federal fighters, whose salaries for years have lagged behind firefighters in other sectors. Bipartisan measures to improve compensation and recruitment are pending in Congress.
The compensation crunch comes to a head as the federal government faces an Oct. 1 shutdown because lawmakers in Congress are at loggerheads over spending legislation to keep the government running in the new fiscal year.
“The pay cliff issue remains imminent without congressional action,” Perry said.
‘Never Seen Such Devastation’
Recruiting and retaining federal firefighters has become more critical in recent years as wildfires become more frequent and intense, the season becomes year-round, and firefighters from all sectors must band together to battle and recover from blazes.
The Government Accountability Office has cited low pay, inadequate opportunities for career advancement, and poor work-life balance among the reasons firefighters leave the federal government. President Joe Biden in 2021 raised the minimum wage for federal firefighters to $15 per hour from $13.
After August’s deadly wildfire on Maui, the Forest Service deployed 20 positions to Hawaii to help with the overall response.
“In all of my years of public service, I have never seen such devastation,” said Rep. Melanie Stansbury (D-N.M.), who visited Hawaii in September with a bipartisan congressional delegation. “New Mexico suffered from catastrophic wildfires last year that impacted our communities, raged through forests, but the ways in which this particular wildfire completely obliterated everything in its path was shocking to see firsthand.”
The Forest Service and the Interior Department together employ approximately 19,000 firefighters. The $600 million in the 2021 infrastructure law for the temporary salary increase raised rates of pay for wildland firefighters by the lesser of $20,000 per year or 50% of an employee’s annual salary. Without an extension, salaries will revert back to where they were before the pay boost kicked in.
The temporary pay supplement from the bipartisan infrastructure law results in about $1,400 to $1,500 extra per month for firefighters, said former federal firefighter Luke Mayfield, president and co-founder of Grassroots Wildland Firefighters, an advocacy group for active and retired firefighters.
Overtime, Hazard Pay
Firefighters can’t make a decent living without loads of overtime and hazard pay, said Mayfield, who spent 18 years with the Forest Service out West before resigning in 2019 over low pay and poor work-life balance.
“The base pay of a federal wildland firefighter doesn’t come close” to helping people obtain things, like a mortgage or raise a family, said Mayfield, who served as an assistant superintendent on a hotshot crew, a highly skilled firefighting team, when he left the Forest Service. At that time, he earned an annual salary of about $48,000; with overtime and hazard pay, his annual take-home pay grew to between $85,000 and $95,000, he said.
A permanent fix to the pay system is just “the tip of the iceberg,” Mayfield said. Firefighters also need better access to expanded mental health care, for example, which proposed congressional legislation aims to do.
“There’s a lot more that’s going to go into this, to turn the federal wildland firefighter workforce into one that is fluid, flexible, efficient, and effective moving across the country,” he said.
House and Senate lawmakers have introduced bipartisan legislation (H.R. 5169; S. 2272) to make the pay increase permanent along with other compensation changes aimed at improving recruitment and retention of the federal firefighting workforce. Reps. Joe Neguse (D-Colo.), Lori Chavez-DeRemer (R-Ore.) and Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.), John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) are among the many lawmakers shepherding the bill.
Biden called on Congress in August to provide an additional $45 million for the Agriculture Department and $15 million for the Interior Department to extend the wildland firefighter pay increase through the first quarter of fiscal 2024.
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