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Labor shortage compounds federal firefighters’ staffing woes

MGN

By SAM METZ
Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Firefighter groups are applauding the Biden administration’s steps to raise pay but warn that the temporary wage hikes won’t be enough to combat 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 attempt to try to keep people at their jobs,” Jonathon Golden, a former federal firefighter from Park City, Utah, said of the move to raise federal firefighter pay. “But it still falls woefully short of the pay in municipal departments and other state agencies.”

Wildfire season is raging throughout the western U.S. and fierce competition for workers is exacerbating challenges facing the land management agencies that employ firefighters. For years, firefighters and their advocates have decried stagnant pay and increased costs of living, arguing both are making recruitment difficult and attrition inevitable.

The Biden administration announced Tuesday that infrastructure bill funds would go to backpay and giving all federal firefighters a raise for two years — either a 50% bump from their base salary or $20,000, whichever is less.

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

Biden said funding for long-term pay raises remained a priority as climate change makes the U.S. West hotter, drier and more prone to wildfires.

“I will do everything in my power, including working with Congress to secure long-term funding, to make sure these heroes keep earning the paychecks — and dignity — they deserve,” he said in a statement.

Though officials say it’s an imperfect metric, the number of unfilled staffing requests on large wildfires — or “unable to fill orders,” indicates growing problems: In 2019, there were 92 times where the National Interagency Fire Center couldn’t mobilize crews to wildfires upon request. In 2020, there were 339 crew mobilization orders that couldn’t be filled. And last year, 1,858 crew mobilization orders couldn’t be filled.

Ken Schmid, operations specialist at the National Interagency Fire Center, said “unable to fill” orders reflect staffing needs but also may depend on geography or time of year, particularly in months when agencies dedicate staff to training or other high priority work.

“What it comes down to is we’ve got more big fires out there and incident management teams with needs to try and corral them than we have folks available,” said Grant Beebe, a former smokejumper and the Bureau of Land Management’s assistant director for fire and aviation.

Members of the advocacy group Grassroots Wildland Firefighters believe raises were long overdue. However, they warn that without permanent increases, some of the nation’s most skilled firefighters — including hotshots, smokejumpers and helitack crews — may go work elsewhere.

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

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

Mid-career federal firefighters currently earn roughly half the pay of third-year firefighters employed by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, according to analysis from Grassroots Wildland Firefighters. Incident commanders working for federal agencies can make as little as one-quarter of the pay of entry-level municipal firefighters working the same fire.

Pay bumps 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 federal firefighters’ pay and benefits and their state and local counterparts, federal officials say.

In a fact-sheet released this week, they say they expect the changes announced Tuesday to help firefighting agencies recruit more workers and create career advancement opportunities for those already employed. Both, officials say, should lower attrition rates for skilled firefighters who have left for other departments or industries.

Land management agencies, mainly 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 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 regions, including California, Oregon and Washington.

Randy Erwin, president of the union representing a majority of federal wildland firefighters, said recruitment and retention had been particularly difficult this year, amid a worse-than-normal fire season. He expects the pay bump to help agencies fill their firefighting ranks.

“Firefighters simply could not make ends meet on the hopelessly low salaries offered at federal agencies, so jobs were becoming very difficult to fill,” he said in a statement.

Brad Hershbein, senior economist at the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, said there were few signs of competition for workers decreasing or hiring slowing down. Though the labor market remains tight, he said private sector employers have recovered to pre-pandemic levels more than public sector employers such as the federal agencies who employ firefighters.

Firefighting may be an attractive profession for young people craving adventure and a sense of purpose, but Hershbein said the allure would likely not insulate federal agencies from broader trends in the labor market and the many factors that prospective employees weigh when considering jobs.

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

U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, who last month in a letter called looming staffing shortages an “urgent threat to natural resources, public safety, and taxpayer dollars,” applauded Biden’s announcement. But he said more needed to be done for firefighters, particularly as blazes grow more severe.

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

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

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

Associated Press

Comments

16 Comments

  1. Americans need to stop counting on government to solve all their minor problems… it wasn’t more than 20 years ago that anyone could volunteer for wildfire fighting service if there was a fire in your area. The word went out over the car radios and there ya go- an opportunity to do your civic duty ! Seems that the participation trophy generation is too busy playing minecraft to save their Mom’s basement in times of need… right Kuya- DB- Tio ?

    1. So your backwards brain thinks I should train all winter, fight fires all summer… and save your trailer for free, huh? All while sacrificing yet another summer with my family. In a job where I work 16 hour days, seven days a week, an sleep in a tent… sometimes with no shower for days. Maybe you can pay my bills then? Hey genuis! Maybe you should go do whatever job you do for free and then let me know how that works out for you. I bet if Trump did this (or anything for people; which he didn’t), you’d be praising him.. right? It’s called a paycheck.. not a participation prize like you seem to be entitled to for all of your “achievements” you boast on here. You better hope I’m not the guy going through your neighborhood deciding which houses can be saved as a wildfire approaches. “Oh this trailer belongs to BGHW… Red flag.. I guess we can’t save it!” Lol. Careful which bridges you burn in life.

      1. Too bad you have to end with a threat. But since there’s no way you know who this person is – I sure don’t and don’t want to… and it’s a major hypothetical if… just please make your point another way next time? If comments get flagged as offensive by others here in new system we’re going to, the review might result in a deletion.

        1. There’s spokeo and a couple of other outfits that will use your screen name(s) and find you. The free versions do not allow this capability, but if I pay them 35 bucks, I can find out nearly everything. VPN networks are harder to defeat, but they can be done by experts

  2. “Lowest unemployment rates in years” but cant find workers and employers are screaming for help , ironic, does nobody want to work any longer?

  3. Staffing shortages, created by govt edict. You have to be really thick or stupid to not have seen the reduction in staffing due to mandated vaccination. Verifiable fact. Despite best intentions of hiding that, it’s clear how this is working… 😂

  4. Federal pay in general needs to be restructured. They pay people with a high school education and no specialized skills on the same pay scale as those with advanced education and high demand trade skills. Not a wonder they’ve got staffing issues and have nice “administrative staff” than they need but are short on the kind of people that actually get the work done. Why would someone take a fed job in a high demand field for an average 25% less than they’d get paid in the private sector? Not a wonder our federal work force is a mess. The only people they can hire are either the bottom of the barrel that couldn’t compete in the private sector or altruistic beyond reason (bless their hearts). High demand positions that require education and/or specialized experience should make more than someone capable of answering a phone or cleaning a campground toilet. Not hard, but here we are…

  5. THANK YOU JOE BIDEN! It’s about time a president did something for those of us who sacrifice every summer with our families, while breathing in toxic air for months at a time. The last president was too busy sewing division in America, to care about the people in it. For you ignorants who want to say: “Then go get another job if you don’t like it.” I say to you: 1. Then who’s going to put out the fires? 2. I don’t like this job.. I love this job- it just didn’t pay very well (even after 20 years of service). 3. Many of us stick with this job, so that there are EXPERIENCED firefighters out there every summer to stop communities from burning to the ground. New firefighters cannot fight fires safely without the guidance and direction of us experienced ones. Last president to do anything for us was Bush Jr., and I was thankful for that too. Bush created more work to firefighters in the off season.. but no pay raises. So don’t try to make this a partisan issue, Trumpers.

    1. Hey Laugh,

      Retired commercial firefighter here with a legit question. If I’m a registered independent, and only vote based on my observations and not party lines, but I still point out a fault in the Democratic Party, does that still make me a trumper?

    2. I agree, experienced firefighters save lives and should be paid accordingly. 40 years ago I was rookie USFS firefighter working my way through college and when the **** hit the fan us pups looked to the big dogs to keep us alive! Hats off and thanks for sticking with it.

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