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Firefighters Are Worth More than $13.45/Hour

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Federal wildland firefighters are leaving the workforce because the risks of the job outweigh the poor pay. It couldn’t happen at a worse time.

“It’s like having gasoline out there,” said Brian Steinhardt, forest fire zone manager for Prescott and Coconino national forests in Arizona, in a recent AP story about the increasingly fire-prone West. 

Now something else is happening?—?and at the worst possible time. 

Federal firefighters are leaving the workforce and taking their training and experience with them. The inability of federal agencies to offer competitive pay and benefits is creating hundreds of wildland firefighting vacancies. 

Vacancies, of course, limit how much federal firefighters can do. If Western communities want to be protected, they need to ensure that their firefighters receive better pay and benefits.The pay doesn’t come close to matching the true demands or everyday dangers of the job.

In my 11 years of work as a wildland firefighter, I’ve managed aircraft, trained people and run fires myself, but I also did outreach and recruitment for the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. I know how hard it is for hiring managers to make 2,000 hours of grueling work, crammed into six exhausting months, sound appealing when the pay is $13.45/hour. The pay doesn’t come close to matching the true demands or everyday dangers of the job.

Federal wildland firefighters, by necessity, are transient workers. During the fire season?—?now nearly year-round?—?they must be available to travel anywhere in the United States at any time. And to advance in their career, they have to move to other federal duty stations to gain more qualifications. 

Finding affordable housing has always been a problem for career firefighters on a federal salary. To make matters worse, federal agencies revoked the ?“Transfer of Station” stipend for career employees, which helped offset the cost of moving. Just recently, a national forest supervisor also revoked a ?“boot stipend.” It might sound minor, but it isn’t: When you’re in the firefighting business, boots tough enough to save your life can easily cost you $500.

Some states aren’t relying on the government to act quickly. ?“We aren’t just waiting for the next crisis to hit,” said California Gov. Gavin Newsom, in establishing an $80.74 million Emergency Fund that delivers an additional 1,256 seasonal firefighters to boost CAL FIRE’s ranks. This Emergency Fund is in addition to the governor’s $1 billion budget request for California’s Wildfire and Forest Resilience Action Plan.

In Washington, state legislators unanimously passed a $125 million package that will enable the state’s Department of Natural Resources to hire 100 more firefighters. The legislation furthers the state’s efforts to restore forest health and creates a $25 million fund to ensure community preparedness around the state.

Utah’s House Bill 65, recently signed into law, appropriates money to help Utah’s communities offset the cost of wildfire suppression. Most importantly, it commissions a study to evaluate the current pay plan for firefighters within Utah’s Natural Resources Department. 

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Casey Snider, was amazed to learn that frontline wildland firefighters make more money at McDonald’s: ?“These positions are critical,” he said. ?“They are the first ones on fires.” This year, Utah has already had five times the number of wildfires it normally experiences in a year.

And firefighters are organizing and speaking up. The Grassroots Wildland Firefighters is working to halt the exodus of firefighters from federal agencies by advocating for pay parity with state and local fire protection agencies. The group also supports initiatives to assist the physical and mental health of firefighters and their families. The statistics they highlight are shocking: Wildland firefighters have a suicide rate 30 times higher than the average. They also experience high incidences of cardiovascular disease and lung cancer. 

There is talk on the federal level of creating a permanent, year-round firefighting workforce. I think this is a necessary step, but it won’t fix the workforce capacity issue unless increased pay and benefits are used to encourage the recruitment and retention of federal firefighters. 

We all know that today’s wildfires are longer, more damaging and more frequent than ever before. We also know that men and women are putting their lives on the line for less than they’d earn at a McDonald’s.

Our firefighters do all this to protect our lives, our forests and our communities. We owe them at least a living wage and a chance for a healthy life. I hope more states and legislators will start paying attention. This is a debt that needs to be paid.

Editor’s Note: This article was provided by Writers on the Range, writ?er?son?therange?.org, a nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on June 18, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jonathan Golden is a contributor to Writers on the Range, writ?er?son?therange?.org, a nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. He left firefighting in 2019 to found a consulting company that focuses on conservation and national security


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Does security clearance expire?

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Once you are cleared to work for the federal government, the clock starts ticking on your security clearance.

If you stay in your job, you will have to be “reinvestigated” periodically. If you leave your federal agency or contractor job, your clearance can lapse in two years. As you move up the ladder, you may need to obtain a higher level of clearance.

The key is to know your clearance status and be proactive to retain clearance, upgrade or get reinstated.

When does security clearance lapse?

Confidential level clearance, the lowest security threat, is good for 15 years. Secret clearance lasts 10 years. Top Secret clearance must be reinvestigated (reauthorized) every 5 years. This assumes no incidents or allegations arise that would cause the government to scrutinize your clearance.

If you are separated from federal employment (voluntarily or involuntarily), your security clearance can lapse. If you resume work for another federal agency or a federal contractor within that time frame, your clearance is reactivated without an investigation. But if the clock expires, you will essentially have to re-apply for security clearance.

How long does it take to get cleared or re-cleared?

The background investigation accounts for the bulk of the processing period. Clearance for lower level jobs rely more on database searches, while positions with higher security involve interviews and other field work.

According to the National Background Investigations Bureau (NBIB), the average processing time for all security clearances in the defense industry is 325 days:

  • Secret and Confidential clearances average 259 days, and 220 days for reinvestigations.
  • Top Secret clearances average 543 days, and 697 days for reinvestigations.

Why does security clearance take so long?

The government clears about 4 million people per year, but that is not keeping pace with demand. There is an estimated backlog of 700,000 security clearance cases, about one-third of whom are federal contractors. Top Secret (TS) security clearances used to be performed in less than three months. Now even the most straightforward TS cases take a year or more.

The administration aims to shift all security clearance from the NBIB to the Department of Defense. Even if that is more thorough and efficient in the long run, such a huge transition will likely increase the backlog and chaos in the short term. Applicants will slip through the cracks. Hiring and advancement will be stymied. Agencies and defense clients will get restless.

The government is also shifting to “continuous evaluation,” rather than more labor-intensive field work, to manage clearance and renewals. This will ideally speed processing times and reduce the backlog, but again the growing pains will likely be felt by federal employees and contractors who get lost in the shuffle.

This blog was originally published by Passman & Kaplan on September 8, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Authors: Founded in 1990 by Edward H. Passman and Joseph V. Kaplan, Passman & Kaplan, P.C., Attorneys at Law, is focused on protecting the rights of federal employees and promoting workplace fairness.  The attorneys of Passman & Kaplan (Edward H. Passman, Joseph V. Kaplan, Adria S. Zeldin, Andrew J. Perlmutter, Johnathan P. Lloyd and Erik D. Snyder) represent federal employees before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB), the Office of Special Counsel (OSC), the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) and other federal administrative agencies, and also represent employees in U.S. District and Appeals Courts.

 


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