Quoting Wildfire Today:
A letter signed by a bipartisan group of 28 lawmakers urged that steps be taken to avert critical staffing shortages in the wildland firefighting workforce. The document was sent May 10 to the Director of the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) and the Secretaries of the Departments of Agriculture and the Interior.
Here’s an excerpt from the letter.
I particularly liked..”arbitrary policies (OPM) are driving recruitment and retention problems.”
The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) must use its authority to stop further attrition in the wildland firefighting workforce. OPM has the authority for special pay rates to address staffing problems caused by significantly higher non-Federal pay rates, the remoteness of the area or location involved, the undesirability of the working conditions or nature of the work involved, and any other circumstances OPM considers appropriate. All these criteria appear applicable in this case.
We recognize that OPM, in collaboration with USFS and the Department of Interior (DOI), is in the process of establishing a new “wildland firefighter” occupational series as required under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. This job series is an important step towards a sustainable livelihood and career path for federal wildland firefighters, with other steps to include housing support, modified scheduling, and leave policies that reflect the unique nature of wildland firefighting. A new job series that maintains the status quo could lead to a surge in resignations just as fire season begins, and OPM must be clear about how it will use special authorities in the near term to address any shortcoming in the new wildland firefighter occupational series.
Given OPM’s function as “the chief human resources agency and personnel policy manager for the Federal Government,” we wish to underscore some of the factors driving attrition in the wildland firefighting workforce, and their long-term implications. Pay is the most important issue, as it is in many professions and sectors of the economy. However, OPM policies and the challenges of being a wildland firefighter compound financial stress in unique and damaging ways. For example, federal wildland firefighters are paid by the hour, even when they are at an incident and miles from the nearest population center and effectively working. Many state and local firefighters are paid on a “portal-to-portal” basis, meaning 24 hours a day, from the time they are assigned to a wildland fire until the time they return, and are reimbursed on that basis by the federal government. Insisting on scheduling and paying federal wildland firefighters in the same manner as other federal employees, rather than other wildland firefighters, is one way in which arbitrary policies are driving recruitment and retention problems.
As President Biden said last year, “the only thing that really matters is if there’s enough firefighters.” The land management agencies have lost thousands of wildland firefighters in just the last few years. The federal wildland firefighting workforce is entering a pivotal stretch with the end of OPM’s classification review process and the beginning of fire season. The Administration must stop attrition and commit to rebuilding the ranks of our firefighting service.
This starts with increases in pay and benefits. The situation is urgent, and we stand ready to work with you to ensure our federal wildland firefighters are fully supported and compensated.