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Washington—Senators Dianne Feinstein and Alex Padilla (both D-Calif.) joined Senator Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) on a bipartisan, bicameral letter calling on the Biden administration to establish a special pay rate for federal wildland firefighters to prevent staffing shortages as the fire season begins and wildfires continue to spread throughout the Western United States.
“As the 2022 fire season begins, we urge you to take necessary steps to avert critical staffing shortages in the wildland firefighting workforce,” the members wrote. “By using existing authority to establish a special pay rate for federal wildland firefighters, we can directly address the recruitment and retention crisis, and ensure that the pending ‘wildland firefighter’ occupational series reflects the professional capabilities of our wildland firefighters.”
Federal wildland firefighters are severely underpaid compared to their state counterparts. This low pay, combined with a longer fire season and more intense and dangerous wildfires, means federal land management agencies are faced with significant recruitment and retention problems.
Senators Feinstein and Padilla called on the administration last year to increase wildland firefighter pay. President Biden responded by permanently raising the minimum pay rate to $15 per hour. The senators also secured nearly $600 million to increase wildland firefighter pay by up to $20,000 per year in hard-to-fill areas in the bipartisan infrastructure bill.
In addition to Senators Sinema, Feinstein and Padilla, the letter was signed by Senators John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), Jon Tester (D-Mont.),Steve Daines (R-Mont.), Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.), Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), Jim Risch (R-Idaho), Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.), Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Mitt Romney (R-Utah) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Representatives Katie Porter (D-Calif.), Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Penn.), Tom O’Halleran (D-Ariz.), Young Kim (R-Calif.), Joe Neguse (D-Colo.), Jerry McNerney (D-Calif.), Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), Jason Crow (D-Colo.) Tony Cárdenas (D-Calif.), Teresa Leger Fernandez (D-N.M.), Grace Napolitano (D-Calif.), Mark Takano (D-Calif.) and Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.).
Full text of the letter is available here and follows:
May 10, 2022
The Honorable Thomas J. Vilsack
U.S. Department of Agriculture
1400 Independence Avenue, S.W.
Washington, D.C. 20250
The Honorable Deb Haaland
U.S. Department of the Interior
1849 C Street, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20240
The Honorable Kiran Ahuja
Office of Personnel Management
1900 E Street, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20415
Dear Secretary Vilsack, Secretary Haaland, and Director Ahuja:
As the 2022 fire season begins, we urge you to take necessary steps to avert critical staffing shortages in the wildland firefighting workforce. By using existing authority to establish a special pay rate for federal wildland firefighters, we can directly address the recruitment and retention crisis, and ensure that the pending “wildland firefighter” occupational series reflects the professional capabilities of our wildland firefighters.
Years of low pay and other issues have hollowed out the federal wildland firefighting workforce. Last year, fire officials were unable to fill an unprecedented 1,800 interagency requests for wildland firefighting crews, and more than 1,900 requests for fire engines. In one state, the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) had 60 engines idle because of low staffing in the midst of the largest fire in state history. Such shortages exist throughout the West heading into the 2022 fire season, with officials estimating staffing will be below 75% in some regions. This is an urgent threat to natural resources, public safety, and taxpayer dollars, as the Federal Government pays a premium to contract and borrow firefighting resources from state and local authorities when federal resources are unavailable.
The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) must use its authority to stop further attrition in the wildland firefighting workforce. OPM has the authority for special pay rates to address staffing problems caused by significantly higher non-Federal pay rates, the remoteness of the area or location involved, the undesirability of the working conditions or nature of the work involved, and any other circumstances OPM considers appropriate. All these criteria appear applicable in this case.
We recognize that OPM, in collaboration with USFS and the Department of Interior (DOI), is in the process of establishing a new “wildland firefighter” occupational series as required under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. This job series is an important step towards a sustainable livelihood and career path for federal wildland firefighters, with other steps to include housing support, modified scheduling, and leave policies that reflect the unique nature of wildland firefighting. A new job series that maintains the status quo could lead to a surge in resignations just as fire season begins, and OPM must be clear about how it will use special authorities in the near term to address any shortcoming in the new wildland firefighter occupational series.
Given OPM’s function as “the chief human resources agency and personnel policy manager for the Federal Government,” we wish to underscore some of the factors driving attrition in the wildland firefighting workforce, and their long-term implications. Pay is the most important issue, as it is in many professions and sectors of the economy. However, OPM policies and the challenges of being a wildland firefighter compound financial stress in unique and damaging ways. For example, federal wildland firefighters are paid by the hour, even when they are at an incident and miles from the nearest population center and effectively working. Many state and local firefighters are typically paid on a “portal-to-portal” basis, meaning 24 hours a day, from the time they are assigned to a wildland fire until the time they return, and are reimbursed on that basis by the federal government. Insisting on scheduling and paying federal wildland firefighters in the same manner as other federal employees, rather than other wildland firefighters, is one way in which arbitrary policies are driving recruitment and retention problems.
As President Biden said last year, “the only thing that really matters is if there’s enough firefighters.” The land management agencies have lost thousands of wildland firefighters in just the last few years. The federal wildland firefighting workforce is entering a pivotal stretch with the end of OPM’s classification review process and the beginning of fire season. We must stop attrition and commit to rebuilding the ranks of our firefighting service. This starts with increases in pay and benefits. The situation is urgent, and we stand ready to work with you to ensure our federal wildland firefighters are fully supported and compensated.