Labor shortage exacerbates federal firefighters’ staffing problems

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Fire groups applaud the Biden government’s moves to raise wages, but warn the temporary wage increases won’t be enough to address staffing problems as federal agencies compete with local fire departments and big box stores in a tight labor market.

“It’s an effort and an effort to try and keep people employed,” Jonathon Golden, a former federal firefighter from Park City, Utah, said of the move to pay federal firefighters. “But it falls woefully short of pay in municipal departments and other government agencies.”

Wildfire season is raging in the western US and fierce competition for workers exacerbates the challenges for the land management agencies that employ firefighters. For years, firefighters and their lawyers have condemned stagnant wages and the higher cost of living, arguing that both make recruitment difficult and exhaustion inevitable.

The Biden Administration announced on Tuesday that money for infrastructure bills would go into arrears and give all federal firefighters a two-year raise — either a 50% increase in their base salary or $20,000, whichever is less.

The move follows an executive order from President Joe Biden signed last year to raise the federal minimum wage for firefighters to $15 an hour. And it’s implementing provisions of last year’s infrastructure law designed to recruit and retain firefighters, including $600 million in one-time funding to raise wages.

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

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

While officials say it’s an imperfect statistic, the number of unfilled personnel requests points to major wildfires — or “unable to fulfill orders,” to growing problems: In 2019, there were 92 times the National Interagency Fire Center was out of crews. could mobilize for forest fires on request. In 2020, there were 339 crew mobilization orders that could not be fulfilled. And last year 1,858 crew mobilization orders could not be carried out.

Ken Schmid, operations specialist at the National Interagency Fire Center, said the “failure to fulfill” orders reflects staffing needs, but can also depend on geography or the time of year, particularly in months when agencies deploy staff for training or other high priority work.

“The bottom line is we have more major fires and incident management teams that have to try and fight them than we have people available,” said Grant Beebe, a former smoke jumper and deputy director of the Bureau of Land Management for Fire and Aviation.

Members of the Grassroots Wildland Firefighters advocacy group believe increases are long overdue. However, they warn that without permanent raises, some of the country’s most skilled firefighters — including hotshots, smoke jumpers and helicopters — could find themselves working elsewhere.

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

In addition to competition from retail employers, federal agencies also compete with state and local branches that can pay more, offer more full-time jobs, 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 who work for federal agencies can earn as little as a quarter of the salary of entry-level municipal firefighters who work at the same fire.

Wage bumps and the creation of a new job classification that would allow more firefighters to be hired for year-round positions will narrow the gap between the pay and benefits of federal firefighters and their state and local counterparts, federal officials say.

In a fact sheet released this week, they say they expect the changes announced Tuesday will help fire services recruit more workers and create career opportunities for those already employed. Both, officials say, should reduce the turnover of skilled firefighters who have moved to other departments or industries.

Land management agencies, primarily the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, hope to employ more than 30,000 firefighters during peak season this summer and have been recruiting new employees throughout the spring.

But the Forest Service said last month that staffing was 90% overall, but only 50% in some fire-prone regions, including California, Oregon and Washington.

Randy Erwin, president of the union that represents a majority of federal wildfirefighters, said recruiting and retention has been particularly difficult this year, amid a worse-than-normal fire season. He expects the pay increase will help the agencies fill their fire brigades.

“Firefighters simply couldn’t get by on the woefully low salaries offered at federal agencies, so jobs became very difficult to fill,” he said in a statement.

Brad Hershbein, senior economist at the WE Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, said there were few signs of competition for workers who are hiring fewer or fewer staff. While the job market remains tight, he said private sector employers have recovered more to pre-pandemic levels than public sector employers such as the federal agencies that employ firefighters.

Fire service may be an attractive profession for young people seeking adventure and purpose, but Hershbein said its appeal is unlikely to isolate federal agencies from broader trends in the labor market and the many factors future workers consider when considering jobs. .

“Based on my reading of everything that’s happening in the job market, it’s going to be very difficult unless they start doing other things to attract people — like bonuses and other incentives,” he said.

US Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, who wrote in a letter last month calling the impending staff shortage an “urgent threat to natural resources, public safety and taxpayers’ money,” applauded Biden’s announcement. But he said more needs to be done for firefighters, especially as the fires intensify.

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

“Summer has arrived, there are firefighter shortages in Oregon and across the West, and there is no time to waste making these changes on the ground.”

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

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