Cantwell wants work benefits for wildland firefighters

By:  K.C. Mehaffey
Source: The Wenatchee World

U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., has joined Republican Sen. Steve Daines, R-Montana, to push for new work benefits and recognition for wildland firefighters.

Their efforts were welcomed by an association of wildland firefighters, and a former manager at the North Cascades Smokejumper Base in Winthrop.

Cantwell and Daines introduced legislation on Wednesday that establishes a five-year pilot program to test out a few changes for U.S. Forest Service firefighters.

The Wildland Firefighter Fairness Act would:

  • Exclude the staging time — when firefighters drive to and set up a fire camp — from the 1,040-hour limit per year currently imposed on seasonal firefighters.
  • Require overtime pay to be considered in calculating workers’ compensation
  • Allow injured wildland firefighters to retain a 20-year retirement track, if they remain in an equivalent position.

A second bill also introduced by Cantwell and Daines, known as the “Wildland Firefighter Recognition Act, would change a Forest Service firefighter’s job title from forestry technician to wildland firefighter.

Bill Moody, a former smokejumper and retired manager of the North Cascades Smokejumper Base in Winthrop, said he thinks both of the bills are very positive.

Although the title change may seem unimportant, it would more accurately describe their job, and provide a sense of pride, he said. “A wildland firefighter has to have specialized skills and physical requirements, and they are working in a high-risk environment, so it distinguishes them from a forestry technician, who might do a lot of non-fire work,” he said.

Moody also said the changes in benefits would provide a little more reward for people electing to take on that high-risk job, and help the agency meet its need for firefighting.

He said he thinks the agency should consider a reasonable amount of overtime for Workers Comp, and should allow firefighters to continue on a 20-year retirement track when they are injured on the job, instead of losing those benefits.

And regardless of their title or designation, if we have a need for their services or skills, they should be allowed to extend their hours to meet the need,” he said.

Currently, many wildland firefighters are seasonal, and barred from working more than 1,040 hours a year. Their workers’ compensation pay does not include overtime pay, which is often substantial. And, if a firefighter is injured and takes another position in the Forest Service with the same pay grade but that does not involve firefighting, they have to give up the 20-year retirement plan they earned from having the hazardous job.

Casey Judd, president of the Federal Wildland Fire Service Association, said his group has been trying to address these issues for the last 15 years, and hopes that bipartisan support this year in both the House and Senate will help them pass.

He said limiting seasonal firefighters to 1,040 hours a year is a big issue, especially as fires get bigger, and fire season gets longer. Although agencies can extend those hours for a season, it then impacts the hours those firefighters can work the following year. “It’s just a mess,” he said.

The staging time, when firefighters arrive at camp and prepare to begin fighting fire, can range from a few hours to days for a complex fire, so by not counting those hours, the need to extend the limit can be avoided, he said.

Judd also said while seasonal firefighters earn overtime, it is not considered when calculating their Workers Comp earnings in their retirement calculations. In addition, when a firefighter is injured and cannot continue fighting fires, he or she can no longer benefit from a 20-year retirement plan, and retire at age 50.

Judd explained that federal firefighters, and some other federal positions, contribute at a higher retirement contribution rate than other federal employees. If they qualify for and get an equivalent position, at the same pay grade, they should be able to continue with the retirement plan they started off with, he suggested.