Union: Fed firefighters finally get big pay boost

Nathan Abse interviews NFFE's president, Randy Erwin, about the good news: Fed wildland firefighters finally got a big raise, at least for two years. But climate change is bringing far more fire danger to our country, and much of the rest of the world.

Climate change—generally increasing drought in the Western U.S. especially—is already leading to more, and more damaging, wildfires in many areas of the country, so warn a number of government scientific reports. “Multiple studies have found that climate change has already led to an increase in wildfire season length, wildfire frequency, and burned area,” a 2021 EPA overview affirmed. Other such federal studies pointing to rising wildfire dangers include reports from the U.S. Geological Survey, USDA, EPA, the GAO (and a more recent GAO follow-up document.) A U.N. report released earlier this year echoes these predictions of growing dangers—predicting that worldwide fires will increase by nearly a third by 2050. The increase in fire danger needs to be suppressed or contained and managed, depending on the situation—and federal wildland firefighters—helped by colleagues from state and local jurisdictions—are the cornerstone of this crucial government function. Most such public servants are not well-paid, and the COVID pandemic and the inflation that’s come with it has worsened the situation considerably. Finally, just last fall, feds who fight fires caught a ray of sunshine: Congress passed a bill permitting the Biden administration to provide a significant and long-delayed pay boost to these heroes. This week, Nathan Abse talked to the union rep for 12,000-plus of these hardworking feds—those with the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management—National Federation of Federal Employees President Randy Irwin.

Q&A with Randy Erwin

You have announced a salary increase of $20,000 per year for most of these workers—but can you give our readers more detail?

Erwin: Yes, I can. First of all, the increase is retroactive to October of last year, as it begins with the fiscal year. The money comes from the infrastructure bill, passed and signed by President Biden in November of last year. Wildland firefighters will get either a $20,000 pay increase, right, or 50% increase in their salary. So, for each firefighter it is the lower of the two numbers. That means that only for the very lowest paid folks, the bill provides the 50% increase in salary.

Is that increase on base pay only—or, does the percentage apply to base-plus-locality pay?

Erwin: That is an interesting point. At first, it was a little bit unclear to us whether it would be applied to just base pay or include locality pay. And, as it turned out, the administration made what we think is a very good decision to include locality pay as well. That was the correct and generous interpretation, on how to apply the possibility to the lowest paid wildland firefighters. The vast majority of wildland firefighters—I don’t have the exact number—will receive either that $20,000 or that 50% increase as is indicated. Remember, only the lowest-paid get the 50% increase in salary.

How many federal wildland firefighters are we talking about here—I mean that you represent and are getting this boost?

Erwin: Yes, well it’s pretty much everybody, of the wildland firefighters. I’d say close to 12,000.  Something like that.

You have warned in our publications and others that—in the face of worsening fires—the government is stumbling and there’s a serious recruitment and retention problem. How bad?

Erwin: In federal agencies, the situation with recruiting and retaining wildland firefighters has been absolutely brutal. You know, given the scope of the wildland firefighter need, and the scope of the wildland fire problem in this country, it’s been really shocking. The problem has grown exponentially over the years. And yet for a long time there has been no real adjustment to the federal pay structure for wildland firefighters. It's stayed bad.  

Why has modest pay been such a problem—I mean firefighting, especially rural firefighting, is modestly paid in most places, right?

Erwin: The problem is that got very bad, and every other employer—in fact, regardless of sector, private sector, public sector—and especially importantly CalFire, and other competitors for [federal] wildland firefighters, has increased their pay dramatically, especially in these past couple of years. So, up until this moment—this announced pay raise—it had become virtually impossible for federal agencies to recruit retain the workforce that they need to complete the mission, of managing and fighting fires.

Does the Biden administration turn the page on a terrible pay situation, with this big pay boost?

Erwin: To a large extent, yes. First, the pay significantly increases. So, the whole problem changes with this decision. Because it will be a life-changing pay increase for wildland firefighters nationwide. It is a beautiful decision by this administration. It is the right decision. Second, this helps because the administration really listened to the workers on this—to the firefighters and to the union. But just a month ago, we didn't know it was going to go the right way—I mean that they would apply the maximum possible including locality pay. They could, legally. But we weren’t sure if they’d try to apply it unevenly. We at NFFE really did get in there and say, “Hey, you’ve got to do this nationwide—because the bill says you can apply the increase in places where it's difficult to recruit and retain wildland firefighters.” And, you know, that would be everywhere.  

What could have happened instead?

Erwin: The administration instead could have tried to cut some wildland firefighters out of the full increase.  I’ll tell you what, if they had cut any wildland firefighters out of it—if they’d said, “Alright, two thirds of you get it, the other third doesn’t”? That would have created a  tremendous backlash. Many resignations, I promise you. Tackling the wildland fires, you know, the wildfire problem, is a nationwide effort. The pay change would have to apply everywhere. People from all parts of the country get sent to fight fires. Point is, if you shortchange people in Wisconsin, or in the South, or in the Southeast, and say, “Oh, you're not part of this pay boost,” we would have had even more problems, just tremendous staffing problems, after that.

You’ve said the timing is important, and that time was running out—why?

Erwin: Yes. This legislation got passed in November—and for people who are making $15 An hour, with many living in poverty, frankly living out of their cars waiting for this promised retroactive pay boost to come through—they were at the end of the line. It was like, “I can't feed my family; I've made this into difference this year, compared to past years.” They were getting ready to move or do something else. And that’s the other thing. In this economy, people have other options. Unemployment is low, wages are up in other sectors. In many places, they could make more at McDonald's than as wildland firefighters!

So what's the lag time—I mean, will employees have to wait long to see the money, which we don’t want if, as you say, they’re on the verge of giving up on federal employment?

Erwin: I think that the good news here. In this case—and it’s not always the case—in this case, after the long wait it'll be practically instant.

You’ve warned that climate change’s fire threat is getting worse, as do many scientific reports. For the public, that’s why this last-minute pay boost to retain firefighters is so important, right?

Erwin: Yes. This is going to be a terrible fire season. It’s already one of the worst—maybe the worst—start to a fire season we've seen. We can’t be 100% sure about the coming weather, but we're off to one of the worst starts to a fire season. The conditions? It's a tinderbox out there.

You and NFFE firefighters see that’s the long-haul trend, too. So: Should the federal government grow a larger firefighting component? Even as it’s hard to fill all slots you have now?

Erwin: Absolutely. I mean, but first fix the current situation. You must be able to recruit and retain the people you’ve got.

Why do you consider this such a last-minute save?

Erwin: Because there were a lot of wildland firefighters out there who have been waiting on this to come in. It’s true, since they expected it would likely work out, nobody wanted to walk away when they're about to—you know—get paid, get paid in a windfall but one they have absolutely already earned. This boost is desperately needed. But it is true also, nobody wants to walk out the door before they're about to finally get caught up on, say, six months of additional pay. Nobody wants to miss that. As they know, the union worked very hard to get it passed. Having said that, there was concern: Are we getting this pay, finally? Or is it more smoke and mirrors and congressional spin or something?

Is there more you want done on wildland firefighter pay?

Erwin: Yes, absolutely. Congress and the administration have provided for only two years of this higher pay. So, while that’s a great thing and a reprieve for this awful coming fire season, our work is not done. We need a long-term fix, with two prongs. One is to implement a new wildland firefighter job series, with a better pay scale for wildland firefighters—one competitive with other sectors. Right now, we are working closely with the Biden administration on this. We feel good about it and expect it will take a few weeks to a couple of months to accomplish. Two, we need action from Congress increasing our federal investment in wildland firefighting. It’s one thing to boost firefighters pay—but then you need to fund it for the long haul.

Any last thoughts on this?

Erwin: In the end, the administration’s decision on moving ahead everywhere with this pay increase was close. And—I’ll say this—if the administration had decided differently, a lot of people who'd been waiting would’ve been like, “Okay, see you later, guys! Final straw!” But on a hopeful note going forward, I don't know of an issue more bipartisan than this.

NEXT STORY: Feds celebrate Juneteenth

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