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Friday, July 1, 2022

Labor shortages exacerbate staffing problems for federal firefighters

Salt Lake City — Firefighters groups applaud the Biden administration’s move to raise wages but warn that a temporary pay hike won’t be enough to solve staffing problems as federal agencies compete with local fire departments and big box stores in a tough job market.

“It’s an effort and an attempt to keep people in their jobs,” Jonathon Golden, a former federal firefighter from Park City, Utah, said of the move to increase the wages of federal firefighters. “But it still lags far behind wages in municipal departments and other government agencies.”

Wildfire season is raging across the western US, and fierce competition for workers is exacerbating the problems facing land management agencies hiring firefighters. For years, firefighters and their supporters have denounced stagnant wages and the rising cost of living, arguing that both make hiring difficult and firing inevitable.

The Biden administration announced on Tuesday that infrastructure bill funds will go toward paying off debt and giving all federal firefighters a two-year allowance—either 50% of their base salary or $20,000, whichever is less.

The move follows President Joe Biden’s executive order last year to raise the minimum wage for federal firefighters to $15 an hour. And it is implementing provisions from last year’s infrastructure bill designed to help hire and retain firefighters, including $600 million in one-time funding for pay increases.

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

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

While officials say it’s an imperfect figure, the backlog of requests for personnel for major wildfires — or “unable to fulfill orders” — points to growing problems: In 2019, the National Interagency Fire Center was unable to mobilize teams to fight wildfires 92 times. on demand. In 2020, 339 crew mobilization orders failed to be fulfilled. And last year, 1858 orders to mobilize crews failed to be fulfilled.

Ken Schmid, an operations specialist at the National Interagency Fire Center, said the “failure to complete” orders reflected staffing needs but could also depend on geography or time of year, especially during the months when agencies dedicate personnel to training or other high-priority work. .

“It comes down to the fact that we have more large fires and incident response teams to try to contain them than we have people,” said Grant Beebe, a former smoker and assistant director of the Bureau of Land Management. fire and aviation.

Members of the Grassroots Wildland Firefighters, an advocacy group, say a pay raise is long overdue. However, they warn that without permanent promotions, some of the most experienced firefighters in the country, including hotheads, smoke jumpers and helicopter crews, could leave to work elsewhere.

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

In addition to competition from retail employers, federal agencies also compete with state and local departments, which can pay more, offer more full-time jobs, and better benefits.

Intermediate federal firefighters currently receive about half the salary of third-year firefighters hired by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, according to an analysis by Grassroots Wildland Firefighters. Emergency commanders working for federal agencies can receive as little as one quarter of the salary of entry-level municipal firefighters working on the same fire.

The increase in pay and the creation of a new job classification that will allow more firefighters to be hired for year-round positions will narrow the gap between wages and benefits for federal firefighters and their state and local counterparts, federal officials said.

In a newsletter released this week, they say they expect the changes announced Tuesday to help fire agencies hire more workers and create career opportunities for those already in the job. Both, officials say, should reduce layoff rates for qualified firefighters who have gone to other departments or industries.

Land administration agencies, primarily the US Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, are hoping to hire more than 30,000 firefighters during peak season this summer and have been working on recruiting new employees throughout the spring.

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

Randy Erwin, president of the union that represents the majority of federal wildfires, said recruiting and retaining staff this year has been especially difficult in the midst of fire season. He expects the pay increase to help agencies fill their firefighter ranks.

“Firefighters simply couldn’t make ends meet on the hopelessly low salaries offered by 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 was little sign of a reduction in competition for workers or a slowdown in hiring. While the job market remains tight, he said private-sector employers have recovered to pre-pandemic levels to a greater extent than public-sector employers, such as federal agencies that hire firefighters.

World Nation News Desk
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