Labor Shortages Compound Federal Firefighter Staffing Issues

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SALT LAKE CITY (TSWT) — Firefighter groups applaud the Biden administration’s moves to raise wages, but warn that temporary wage increases won’t be enough to tackle staffing issues as federal agencies are in competing with local fire departments and big box stores in a tight situation. labor market.

“It’s an effort and an attempt to try to keep people on the job,” Jonathon Golden, a former federal firefighter from Park City, Utah, said of the decision to raise federal firefighter pay. “But it remains woefully below the pay of city departments and other state agencies.”

Wildfire season is raging across the western United States, and fierce competition for workers is exacerbating the challenges faced by land management agencies that employ firefighters. For years, firefighters and their advocates have denounced stagnant wages and rising costs of living, arguing that both make recruiting difficult and attrition inevitable.

The Biden administration announced on Tuesday that funds from infrastructure bills would go towards reimbursement and give all federal firefighters a raise for two years — either a 50% increase in their base salary or $20,000, depending on the amount. the lowest.

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

Biden said funding long-term pay raises remains a priority because climate change is making the American 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 ensure these heroes continue to earn the paychecks – and the dignity – they deserve” , he said in a statement.

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Although officials say it’s an imperfect measure, the number of unmet requests for staff on large wildfires – or “unable to fill orders”, indicates growing problems: in 2019, there There have been 92 times the National Interagency Fire Center has been unable to mobilize wildfire crews. on demand. In 2020, there were 339 crew mobilization orders that could not be fulfilled. And last year, 1,858 crew mobilization orders could not be executed.

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

“What comes down to saying is that we have more big fires and incident management teams that need to try to surround them than we have people available,” said Grant Beebe, a former smokejumper and deputy director of the Bureau of Land Management for fire and aviation.

Members of the Grassroots Wildland Firefighters advocacy group believe the increases were long overdue. However, they warn that without permanent raises, some of the country’s most skilled firefighters – including hotshots, smokejumpers and helitack crews – could go to work 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 now,” said Golden, the former firefighter.

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.

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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 working for federal agencies can earn as little as a quarter of the salary of entry-level municipal firefighters working on the same fire.

Wage increases 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 pay and benefits for federal firefighters and their state and local counterparts. , according to federal officials.

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

Land management agencies, primarily the US Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, hope to employ more than 30,000 firefighters during peak season this summer and have been working to recruit new employees through 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 the majority of federal firefighters, said recruiting and retention have been particularly difficult this year, amid a worse-than-normal fire season. He expects the pay rise to help agencies fill their ranks with firefighters.

“Firefighters simply couldn’t make ends meet with the desperately low salaries offered in federal agencies, so jobs became very hard to fill,” he said in a statement.

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

Firefighting can be an attractive profession for young people looking for adventure and a sense of purpose, but Hershbein said the lure is unlikely to insulate federal agencies from broader labor market trends and many factors that potential employees weigh when considering jobs.

“Based on my reading of everything that’s going on in the job market, unless they do other things to attract people – like bonuses and other incentives – it’s going to be really tough” , did he declare.

U.S. Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, who last month in a letter called impending staff shortages “an urgent threat to natural resources, public safety, and taxpayers’ dollars,” applauded the news. Biden. But he said more needed to be done for firefighters, especially as the blazes get worse.

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

“Summer is here, there’s a shortage of firefighters in Oregon and across the West, and there’s no time to waste implementing these changes in the field.”

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The Switzerland Times writer Aamer Madhani contributed from Washington, DC Metz reported part of this story from a workshop at the Institute for Journalism & Natural Resources in Boise, Idaho.

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