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Benefits victory for seasonal firefighters just first step

Jul. 15, 2012 - 01:34PM   |  
By BILL DOUGAN   |   Comments

It comes as no surprise that federal employee benefits have been the subject of intense debate in recent years. From pay freezes to retirement cuts and health care reforms, there has been no shortage of discussions for or against altering your benefits.

The one benefits story that hasn’t been told is that of our nation’s temporary seasonal workforce. On the surface, they seem like any other federal employees doing the business of their nation: They are firefighters battling wildfires, rangers maintaining the safety of our wilderness areas, and biologists protecting the quality of our streams and rivers.

So what sets them apart? They receive no health insurance or pension benefits.

How can this be? Federal regulations state that as long as the government pays these workers for less than 1,040 hours in base pay each year, they are ineligible for health or pension benefits. As a result, it is common practice for agencies to work employees just below the 1,040-hour threshold before letting them go — only to hire the majority of them again the following year. This is the origin of their nickname: the 1,039s.

Living without health insurance can be devastating for these workers and their families. I would know. I began my federal career as a temporary seasonal wildland firefighter in a national forest in the Pacific Northwest. At that time, my wife, Libby, and I had twin boys with a third child on the way. During much of my wife’s pregnancy, I was the sole provider for our family and we counted on the overtime that came with fire assignments to help make ends meet.

Because I was a temporary employee, my family and I didn’t have the opportunity to participate in the Federal Employees Health Benefits plan. Without health insurance, the expenses associated with the birth of our third child were paid for out of pocket. By the grace of God, our son was born healthy and there were no complications with his birth.

For Nathan Ochs, a Tatanka hotshot firefighter out of Custer, S.D., there was no such luck. His son, Rudy, was born prematurely, placing him and his wife, Constance, $70,000 in debt to medical providers. That amount is roughly twice what Nathan and other wildland firefighters make in an entire year.

Stories like Nathan’s are all too common among the ranks of some 10,000 to 15,000 temporary seasonal federal employees. Across all stories, the bottom line is the same: With families to support and bills to pay, heroes like Nathan and countless others are left with nowhere to turn when they or their families fall ill.

This month, a wildland firefighter named John Lauer started a petition demanding the Obama administration extend benefits to seasonal wildland firefighters. He started that petition not for himself but for his godson, Rudy, son of his friend and fellow hotshot Nathan Ochs.

What no one realized at the time, however, was just how many people felt the same way. In one month, the petition grew from a few hundred signatures to more than 126,000. Support has come from people across the nation. Their message has been clear and consistent: Firefighters risk their lives protecting us, and now we need to do our part to protect them.

This message made it all the way to the White House, culminating in President Obama’s announcement last week that he will issue an executive order to finally extend health coverage to wildland firefighters.

Though this was a clear victory for thousands of brave firefighters and their families, this is only the first step forward in a long journey. Thousands more workers still toil without access to basic health insurance, and that practice needs to stop.

In today’s political universe, there are few instances of right or wrong, black or white. But this issue is one of the few clear cases of injustice — injustice that is ripe for change.

We hope that everyone reading this piece, and those making decisions in government, does the right thing for these forgotten employees and gives their families the protection they have earned.

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Bill Dougan is national president of the National Federation of Federal Employees.

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