Sinema Bill on Firefighter Pay Is “Slap in the Face” to Workers Battling Blazes

Biden’s 2021 funding boost for federal wildland firefighters is set to lapse, and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema’s proposal would give them a major pay cut.

A US Forest Service firefighter crew arrives at the scene where flames from the Caldor fire threaten to jump highway 50 in Meyers, California on  August 31, 2021. - Thousands of people were ordered to evacuate August 30, 2021 as a huge wildfire loomed over a major US tourist spot, filling the air with choking smoke. The Caldor Fire has already torn through more than 270 square miles (700 square kilometers), razing hundreds of buildings. (Photo by JOSH EDELSON / AFP) (Photo by JOSH EDELSON/AFP via Getty Images)
A U.S. Forest Service firefighter crew arrives at the scene where flames from the Caldor fire threaten to jump highway 50 in Meyers, Calif., on Aug. 31, 2021. Photo: Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images

At the height of fire season and amid record shattering temperatures, a bipartisan group of senators led by Kyrsten Sinema, I-Az., has framed a new bill related to firefighter pay as a boon for the wildland workforce. In reality, the bill would result in a major pay cut to federal firefighters who saw their wages increase under President Joe Biden’s infrastructure bill. 

The 2021 law included a temporary but significant increase in firefighters’ take-home pay: 50 percent or $20,000, depending on a worker’s pay grade. That boost is set to lapse in September, and lawmakers have introduced the Wildland Firefighter Paycheck Protection Act to soften the blow. The bill would split the difference between the pay wildland firefighters received prior to 2021 and their increased wages of the last two years. 

There are tens of thousands of federal firefighters spread across the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, and National Park Service typically working from July through November, the peak season for wildfires. Sinema’s proposal falls short for some of those on the front lines, battling this season’s blazes.

“With the WPFAA, we will take up to an $11,000 pay cut,” Brett Loomis, a California-based wildfire manager, told The Intercept in an email. “A pay cut would be a pretty big slap in the face to those of us making critical risk management decisions, and just further shows how many people, including those in my own agency, do not understand the demands of this job.”

The bill mirrors the pay scale increase that Biden included in his 2024 budget proposal to Congress, but it does not include funding for additional benefits, including health care, that the president had also requested. It passed the Senate Homeland Security Committee with near-unanimous support last week and now awaits a floor vote. Sinema and other members of the committee did not respond to requests for comment.

“That’s still less than what people are getting paid with the bipartisan infrastructure law supplement.”

With federal firefighters facing a guaranteed pay cut in September unless Congress passes new legislation, the National Federation of Federal Employees, a public sector union representing wildland firefighters, and Grassroots Wildland Firefighters, an advocacy organization that lobbies Congress on behalf of the workforce, support the WFPPA. 

But Riva Duncan, the Grassroots vice president, said that lawmakers also need to address what are still-low wages and a lack of benefits for a physically dangerous and mentally trying job. Her organization also supports a different bill, introduced by Colorado Democrats Sen. Michael Bennet and Rep. Joe Neguse in May, that would boost both pay and benefits for firefighters. That bill has yet to come up for a vote and likely won’t be considered in time to correct the September pay cliff.

Duncan contrasted the WFPPA to Biden’s budget proposal. “This legislation only addresses pay, whereas the president’s budget proposal had a more comprehensive package addressing issues,” Duncan said. “That didn’t happen, so Senator Sinema crafted this legislation addressing the pay issue. It uses the same paytable as what the president requested, but that’s still less than what people are getting paid with the bipartisan infrastructure law supplement.”

This photograph taken on July 25, 2022, shows embers falling from trees of a forest destroyed by the Oak Fire near Mariposa, California, burning west of Yosemite National Park where the Washburn Fire has threatened the giant sequoia trees of the Mariposa Grove. - Firefighters were battling California's largest wildfire of the summer on July 25, 2022, a blaze near famed Yosemite National Park that has forced thousands of people to evacuate, officials said, as the Oak Fire in Mariposa County has engulfed 16,791 acres (6.795 hectares) and is 10 percent contained, Cal Fire, the state fire department, said. (Photo by DAVID MCNEW / AFP) (Photo by DAVID MCNEW/AFP via Getty Images)

Embers fall from trees of a forest destroyed by the Oak Fire near Mariposa, Calif., burning west of Yosemite National Park where the Washburn Fire has threatened the giant sequoia trees of the Mariposa Grove, on July 25, 2022.

Photo by David McNew/AFP via Getty Images

“A True Crisis”

As wildfires have grown larger and larger over the past decade, the workforce employed to dig scratch lines, refuel water tankers, and in some cases parachute directly into flames has struggled to win the same wages and benefits shared by other federal employees. Due to low starting rates that are supplemented by overtime and hazard pay, workers scramble to work as many hours as possible to make ends meet, a goal rendered even more difficult by the unpredictable nature of when, where, and for how long fires rage. 

The bipartisan infrastructure bill’s increase sought to correct this disparity and boost retention in an industry that routinely sees workers leave firefighting for more stable, better paying jobs. 

According to a 2022 Government Accountability Office report examining challenges in the wildland firefighting workforce, “Low pay was the most commonly cited barrier to recruiting and retaining federal wildland firefighters. Officials and all 16 stakeholders stated that the pay, which starts at $15 per hour for entry-level positions, is low. Officials and eight stakeholders also noted that the pay does not reflect the risk or physical demands of the work. Moreover, officials and stakeholders said that in some cases, firefighters can earn more at nonfederal firefighting entities or for less dangerous work in other fields, such as food service.”

In addition to pay increases, Grassroots Wildland Firefighters has also sought congressional support to address the widespread mental health crisis afflicting seasonal workers. While some wildland firefighters can obtain health care during the fire season thanks to an Obama-era rule, they lose access to it when the season ends and they are left without work for months on end.

Bennet and Neguse’s bill includes the types of benefits that Grassroots has advocated for. First introduced in the House of Representatives in 2021, the wide-ranging bill has recently garnered support from Senate Democrats hoping to overhaul an increasingly rundown and poorly staffed fire system. The Tim Hart Wildland Firefighter Classification and Pay Parity Act, named after a smoke jumper who died on the job and shortened to Tim’s Act, would increase base pay for wildland firefighters to at least $20 an hour and establish special pay rates at all grade levels. The bill would also pay wildland firefighters for all hours they are mobilized to fight a fire by creating a new form of premium pay, and provide paid rest and recuperation leave following work on wildland fires. 

Tim’s Act would also begin to address the health challenges faced by firefighters by creating a national database to track chronic disease caused by on-the-job environmental exposure, new mental health programs, and seven days of mental health leave. The legislation would also give tuition assistance to all permanent federal employees in the wildland firefighter classification and provide housing stipends for all firefighters on duty more than 50 miles from their primary residence.

The last provision relates to widespread reports of firefighters experiencing homelessness while waiting to be called out to work and also upon returning home, when earnings banked during the summer and early fall run dry before the next fire season begins. 

“Highly trained firefighters are leaving for state and local fire departments or leaving the fire service altogether in order to afford a place to live and feed a family,” Steve Lenkart, executive director of the National Federation of Federal Employees, the union representing the firefighters, wrote in a statement. “It really is a true crisis as the country endures more wildfires each year.”

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