Last week, a federal employee union advocated that President Biden continue with his efforts to increase the pay of federal firefighters to a minimum of $15 per hour this year. This plan also includes other improved benefits for federal firefighters.
Biden has already announced that this year, permanent firefighters that are paid at a GS-9 level or below will receive a 10% retention incentive, while temporary employees will receive a $1,000 Spot/Star award in order to boost their pay from around $13 per hour to $15, which is the widely accepted number amongst Democrats advocating for a raise in minimum wage.
“I just realized—I didn’t realize this, I have to admit—that federal firefighters get paid $13 an hour,” Biden said. “That’s going to end in my administration. That’s a ridiculously low salary to pay federal firefighters.”
National Federation of Federal Employees National President Randy Erwin sent a letter to the president last week, which provided moves that the administration can take without congressional action to better the lives of thousands of federal firefighters his union represents.
Erwin has put forth that the government could boost salaries by up to 50% through a variety of administrative actions, such as providing remote location pay for those who travel away from their families to work during fire season, creating new positions and job classifications for firefighters, and adding hazard pay into their regular salaries so that it may be reflected in their leave and retirement benefits.
“Approximately half of federal firefighter income comes in the form of overtime and hazard pay, all of which is excluded from wages considered for retirement,” Erwin wrote. “Our members are paid far less than the state and local firefighters they work alongside. Our agencies provide some of the best training and experience, but many experienced firefighters leave once they get to journeyman level for better pay elsewhere, from $21 an hour up to triple that. Pay increases will improve workforce retention, which saves on training costs and ensures we have the most experienced hands on the fire line.”
Erwin praised Biden’s short-term plan to hire and convert seasonal employees to full-time status as a good “first step,” but said the agencies that employ federal firefighters must increase their ranks by 10,000 to 20,000 over the next decade to ease the strain felt by the current workforce.
“Year-round employment may also mean year-round deployment, which potentially deprives our firefighters of critical off-season recovery time from fatigue and the stress of the job,” Erwin wrote. “Please hire more firefighters before asking more of our already stretched workforce.”
With this increased workload of a longer fire season, there is also talk of improving federal firefighters’ access to mental health resources and other work-life balance programs. Erwin highlighted this need, recognizing its importance to federal firefighters and their well-being.
“Many of our firefighters have witnessed their colleagues injured or killed on the job and have experienced their own close calls,” Erwin wrote. “We need a new program that is fully accessible in rural areas; staffed with professionals who know trauma and treat PTSD, depression and substance abuse; and includes comprehensive suicide prevention and crisis support.”
Additionally, the U.S. Forest Service and the Interior Department have been given a waiver to extend seasonal employees’ terms in order for to allow them to work additional hours. Both agencies intend to implement hiring sprees, by taking on new workers and also changing seasonal employees to full-time.