Average annual pay for U.S. Forest Service firefighters is $38,000, versus $70,000 to $88,000 for their state, local and private counterparts. The White House has ordered an immediate modest boost, and bills pending in Congress could lock in this and additional gains for these crucial first responders.
The Biden administration says it will work with state and local governments, Congress and the private sector to address federal firefighter workforce challenges as wildfire season approaches.
First, it’s aiming to make sure federal firefighters get a $15 wage floor this year.
At a press briefing on June 22, President Joe Biden told reporters he had learned some federal firefighters make $13 an hour.
“That’s going to end in my administration,” he said. “That’s a ridiculously low salary to pay federal firefighters.”
On June 30, he announced his intention to ensure federal firefighters get a $15 wage floor this year.
The administration is giving permanent, frontline firefighters up to the GS-9 level up to a 10% bonus. Temporary workers who promise to continue through the season get a $1,000 bonus. These changes are for this year only, but the administration says it wants to work with Congress to ensure higher pay in the future as well.
“We can’t cut corners when it comes to managing our wildfires or supporting our firefighters,” Biden said during remarks given that day. “A one-time boost is not enough. These courageous women and men take an incredible risk of running toward the fire, and they deserve to be paid, and paid good wages.”
“So, we’re going to work with Congress, and I know many of your senators and representatives have been working hard on this to permanently get federal firefighters a better deal, including improvements in their compensation, their benefits and their work-life balance,” he said.
At a hearing in May, U.S. Forest Service Chief Vicki Chirstiansen spoke about the current pay disparities among firefighters.
“[The] average for a U.S. Forest Service firefighter is $38,000 a year. State, local and private entities can range from $70,000 to $88,000 a year, and their benefits are better,” she said.
The Biden administration is also looking to address lengthening fire seasons with year-round workers. The firefighting cadre has traditionally been made up by seasonal hires.
The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) has approved an exemption for extending seasonal hires at both the Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Department of Interior (DOI), according to the White House’s announcement.
DOI is already in the process of creating its year round force. As of June 10, it’s hired 57 employees out of a 570 anticipated full-time positions. USDA is also creating a year-round force.
Finally, the administration wants to increase surge capacity to fight fires. USDA and DOI already have surge capacity, but the National Guard will use available federal funding from Congress to train guard members to support state response to wildfires. The Department of Defense is also training two military units to be able to support firefighting operations, according to the White House.
Certain members of Congress have long been active on the subject, calling for increased pay and year-round workforces.
On the same day Biden announced his changes for the workforce, a group of California representatives led by Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) introduced the companion to a Senate bill from Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) that would waive annual premium pay caps for federal firefighters.
Another bill would allow firefighters to trade shifts without it affecting their pay or annual leave.
Feinstein and other senators have also pushed for FY 2022 appropriations bills to direct the OPM to address pay disparities for federal firefighters by updating their job classifications and pay grading, and for a forthcoming review from the Government Accountability Office on hiring and retention issues for federal firefighters.
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