With temporary pay hikes for federal wildland firefighters set to expire in the coming weeks, union officials are warning that the 15,000-member workforce could face a mass exodus if Congress fails to make the increases permanent.
Max Alonzo, national business representative for the National Federation of Federal Employees, said recently that many firefighters were likely to depart for higher paying jobs at state and municipal agencies, or power companies, once they reached the "pay cliff" — the point at which temporary raises end.
If that were to happen, the consequences would be dire, he said.
"If we lose our wildland firefighters, we're going to lose our natural resources, we're going to lose cities and towns and we're going to lose lives," Alonzo said. "This is not just about wildland firefighters — this is about the safety of our country."
The warning comes at a time when worsening wildfires have added to the mental and physical strains of a demanding job, while low wages and lackluster benefits have made it increasingly difficult for the federal government to recruit new firefighters, and retain those with valuable experience.
A bipartisan infrastructure package passed in 2021 sought to address the pay issue by setting aside $600 million to temporarily increase salaries by $20,000 or 50% — whichever was less. But that money is set to run out Sept. 30 for firefighters employed by the Department of the Interior, and Nov. 4 for firefighters employed by the Forest Service, said Riva Duncan, former wildland firefighter and vice president of Grassroots Wildland Firefighters, an advocacy group made up of retired and current federal firefighters.
The legislation Congress is now weighing would permanently increase federal firefighters' base pay, which can start at as little as $15 an hour. Although some firefighters would still make less than they did with the temporary bonus, the raises would count toward calculating overtime, hazard pay and other benefits.
"It's a little bit of a trade-off," Duncan said. "We're not super happy about it and wish it was more, but it's a good first step."
The bill, however, has become hung up in the House, where it's been referred to multiple committees, including the House Committee on Oversight and Reform. The committee chair, Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.), did not respond to a message seeking comment.
"I would think this should be the top priority the committee should be pursuing," said Rep. Joe Neguse (D-Colo.), who introduced the bill in the House last month with bipartisan support. "It's a crisis we need to address and warrants immediate action by the Congress."
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