Labor shortage compounded the woes of federal firefighters’ workforce

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Firefighter groups are applauding the Biden administration’s moves to raise pay, but warn that temporary pay increases won’t be enough to deal with workers’ problems, as federal agencies competes hard with local fire departments and big box stores. labour market.

Jonathan Golden, a former federal firefighter from Park City, Utah, said of the move to raise federal firefighter pay, “It’s an effort and an attempt to try and keep people at their jobs.” “But it is still far less than salaries in municipal departments and other state agencies.”

Wildfire season is underway across the western U.S. and fierce competition for workers poses challenges to land management agencies that hire firefighters. For years, firefighters and their advocates have denounced stagnant wages and increased costs of living, arguing that both are making recruitment difficult and unavoidable.

The Biden administration announced Tuesday that the infrastructure bill will go to fund backpay and extend to all federal firefighters for two years – either 50% of their basic pay or $20,000, whichever is less.

The move follows an executive order that President Joe Biden signed last year to raise the federal firefighter minimum wage to $15 an hour. And it invokes provisions of last year’s infrastructure bill, which helps recruit and retain firefighters, including $600 million in one-time funding to raise wages.

Biden said funding for long-term wage increases remains a priority as climate change makes the US West hotter, drier and more prone to wildfires.

He said in a statement, “I will do everything in my power, including working with Congress to secure long-term funding, to ensure these heroes continue to earn paychecks — and dignity — They deserve.”

Although officials say this is an incomplete metric, the number of incomplete staffing requests – or “unable to fill orders”, on major wildfires – indicates growing problems: in 2019, there were 92 times where the National Interagency Fire Center Could not mobilize crew for wildfire on request. In 2020, there were 339 crew mobilization orders that could not be filled. And last year, 1,858 crew mobilization orders could not be filled.

“Unable to fill” orders reflect staffing needs, said Ken Schmid, operations specialist for the National Interagency Fire Center, but can also depend on geography or the time of year, especially in the months when agencies are training staff. Or devote to other high priority work.

“It comes down to whether we have much bigger fires out there and that incident management teams need to try and control them,” said Grant Beebe, a former smokejumper and assistant director of the Bureau of Land Management. Fire and Aviation.

Members of the advocacy group Grassroots Wildland Firefighters believed the increase was long overdue. However, they warn that without a permanent increase, some of the nation’s most skilled firefighters – including hotshots, smokejumpers and helitech crews – may be working elsewhere.

“You can go to a Whole Foods and start at $16 an hour with a $1,000 signing bonus. It’s a tight labor market right now,” said Golden, a former firefighter.

In addition to facing competition from retail employers, federal agencies also compete with state and local departments that may pay more, offer more full-time positions and better benefits.

According to an analysis by Grassroots Wildland Firefighters, mid-career federal firefighters currently earn about half the salary of third-year firefighters employed by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. Incident commanders working for federal agencies can earn as little as one-quarter of the pay of entry-level municipal firefighters working on the same fire.

Federal officials say wage barriers and the creation of a new job classification that would allow more firefighters to be hired for year-round positions would reduce the gap between federal firefighters’ pay and benefits and their state and local counterparts .

In a factsheet released this week, they say they hope the changes announced Tuesday will help fire agencies recruit more workers and create career advancement opportunities for those already employed. Both, officials say, should have reduced accident rates for skilled firefighters who have left for other departments or industries.

Land management agencies, primarily the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, expect to hire more than 30,000 firefighters during this summer’s peak season and have worked to recruit new employees throughout the spring.

But the Forest Service said last month that staffing levels were 90% overall, but as low as 50% in some fire-prone areas, including California, Oregon and Washington.

Randy Irwin, president of the union that represents the majority of federal wildland firefighters, said recruitment and retention had been particularly difficult this year amid a worse-than-normal fire season. He is hopeful that the hike in salary will help the agencies to fill the fire ranks.

“The depressingly low wages offered in federal agencies to firefighters simply could not make ends meet, so the jobs were becoming increasingly difficult to fill,” he said in a statement.

Brad Hershbein, senior economist at the WE Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, said there are some signs of reduced competition for workers or slowing hiring. Although the labor market remains tight, he said private sector employers have reached pre-pandemic levels compared to public sector employers such as federal agencies that hire firefighters.

Firefighting can be a lucrative profession for youth who crave adventure and a sense of purpose, but Hershbein said this attraction allows federal agencies to weigh potential employees when considering broader trends in the labor market and jobs. will not separate from

“Based on my reading of everything going on in the labor market, unless they’re going to do other things to attract people — like bonuses and other incentives — it’s going to be really hard,” They said.

US Senator Ron Weyden of Oregon, who last month called Looming Staffing an “immediate threat to natural resources, public safety and taxpayer dollars” in a letter, hailed Biden’s announcement. But he said more needs to be done for firefighters, especially as the fires become more severe.

“They deserve the basic decency of good pay and good benefits that fully recognize their sacrifice and the work required, and allow them to support their families,” he said.

“Summer is here, there’s a firefighter shortage in Oregon and across the West, and there’s no time to waste implementing these changes on the ground.”

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Associated Press writer Amer Madhani contributed from Washington, DC Metz told part of this story from an Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources workshop in Boise, Idaho.

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