Federal firefighters would get permanent pay increases under President Joe Biden’s 2024 budget request, lifting what many in the field say is the most common barrier to retaining crew members in the Departments of the Interior and Agriculture: low salaries.
The spending plan, if accepted as is by Congress, would reform several aspects of a job that workers say is dangerous, mentally taxing and poorly compensated.
Last year, 69,000 wildfires burned more than 7 million acres across the country. On average, wildfire frequency, intensity, size and cost are increasing, Interior said, and firefighters essentially work a “fire year” instead of just a season. Firefighters and their advocates have pushed lawmakers for several reforms to force readiness, especially on pay, that will outlast the funds set forth in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Act, which are expected to be spent by the end of 2026.
“Today, 71 million properties, out of 143 million, are at risk of wildfire,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) before the Senate’s budget committee on March 8. “You heard that right. Fully half of all properties in this country are at risk.
The request for USDA’s Forest Service’s wildland fire and hazardous fuels management is $3 billion, 28% above the 2023 enacted level. For Interior, top-level requests come to $1.3 billion or 21% above last year’s.
For firefighters, pay starts at $15 per hour, the federal minimum wage, for entry-level positions, which increased in August 2021 from $13. The 2024 budget proposal reaffirmed that.
Premium pay category
The White House plan also wants to establish a permanent salary table with increases baked in and a new “premium pay category” that gives first responders additional compensation for all hours they are mobilized on an incident. The budget also would give the agency secretary the authority to waive caps on pay during times of high personnel demand.
“In these long fire seasons where they’re out all summer long on fires, we started seeing some of these higher GS level people hitting that cap,” said Riva Duncan, executive secretary of Grassroots Wildland Firefighters. “Basically they’re working for just their base pay after a certain point, and so the secretary now has authority to waive the cap.”
In 2022, regulations said employees cannot exceed the yearly basic pay of the Executive Schedule Level II, which is $203,700, while participating in fire assignments for that year. If an employee exceeded that amount, he would receive a bill for overpayment.
“The current overtime pay cap serves as a disincentive for many experienced firefighters who would deploy to wildfire incidents, especially later in the fire season,” said Rep. Zoe Lofgren (CA-19) in a statement introducing a similar legislative provision in 2021.
It has been estimated that as many as 500 senior-level firefighters at the Forest Service stop participating or fail to request pay for hours worked once they reach the cap.
According to the USDA’s 2024 budget justification, the special base rate table will be applied to all federal wildland firefighters and will be determined on a sliding scale at all grades. It supplements what was called for in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and establishes the raises as permanent and not open to interpretation as supplemental. That matters because otherwise, it wouldn’t count toward retirement, Duncan said.
“We know that the lower GS people get the highest bump, which is as it should be, but we still haven’t seen the in-betweens yet,” Duncan said. “There are a lot of specifics and particulars we’re still waiting on [to be negotiated].”
The new premium pay category would also apply portal-to-portal, meaning payment includes time spent before and after the actual duties are performed as prep work for a shift or travel, according to the USDA’s budget justification.
“Overall, we’re very happy,” said Duncan. “There are some things in there we were surprised to see, from a good standpoint. Like portal-to-portal pay — I honestly didn’t even know if I’d see that in my life[time] happening.”
To help with understaffed fire teams, the budget requests funding for the equivalent of 970 additional federal firefighters and support personnel for USDA and 370 more personnel for the Interior.
Wildland firefighters have also called for legislation to provide more mental health and wellbeing benefits given such employees are at a higher risk of developing mental health conditions that are often undetected and under-treated, according to researchers.
Thus, the budget also proposes an increase of $10 million each for USDA and Interior to establish year-round prevention and mental health support training, provide post-traumatic stress care, enhance capacity for acute response and create a system of trauma support services with an emphasis on early intervention.
The departments will co-host a Firefighter Mental Health and Wellbeing Summit in April to further the program’s development.
Because firefighters have to relocate to wherever the next crisis is, finding available housing on short notice can be difficult, especially around high-cost cities. The budget proposes increases of $22 million and $50 million for Interior and USDA respectively to renovate and construct housing for personnel.
Congress must not take a piecemeal approach to these provisions when it begins negotiating the budget, Duncan said.
“It’s really critical that legislators first of all, approve it, and then approve it in its entirety, as it’s written in the request,” she said. “We really need this package intact because a lot of these things influence and are related to other things.”
Molly Weisner is a staff reporter for Federal Times where she covers labor, policy and contracting pertaining to the government workforce. She made previous stops at USA Today and McClatchy as a digital producer, and worked at The New York Times as a copy editor. Molly majored in journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.