The sweeping infrastructure bill that the U.S. Senate passed on Tuesday would lay the groundwork for increased federal wages for wildland firefighters.
The bill would direct the U.S. departments of agriculture and the interior, which together employ some 15,000 wildland firefighters, to begin working with the Office of Personnel Management, the federal government’s human resources agency, on a new set of job classifications for firefighters.
Lawmakers and federal firefighter advocates say changing job classifications is the first step toward increasing the wages of all firefighters.
The Senate bill would also require the ministries of agriculture and the interior to transform at least 1,000 seasonal firefighter jobs into full-time positions. And it would allow agencies to raise salaries by $ 20,000 per year, or 50% of a job’s base salary, for positions that are particularly difficult to fill in a certain field.
The legislation must now be passed by the United States House before it can make its way to President Joe Biden’s office.
Biden last month announced increases and one-time bonuses for federal wildland firefighters to ensure they earn at least $ 15 an hour.
Federal wildland firefighters say low wages, long deployments and dangerous conditions make it difficult to fill jobs, even as growing and dangerous wildfires make the wildland firefighter workforce larger than never.
Staffing problems are particularly acute in California, where this spring the US Forest Service sought to fill 781 permanent vacancies, but ended up with 725 vacancies. As of July, only half of the California area fire trucks were fully staffed and able to operate five days a week.
Grassroots Wildland Firefighters, an advocacy group lobbying Congress to improve wages and working conditions for firefighters, applauded the Senate bill.
“Grassroots Wildland firefighters are delighted with the Senate’s passage of HR 3684 and the public recognition that our federal wildland firefighter workforce, desperately in need of modern reform, is starting its first steps towards much needed improvements, âGroup Chairman Kelly Martin said in a press release.
More than 3.8 million acres have burned in the United States so far this year, according to the National Interagency Fire Center, which coordinates the national response to wildfires. Nearly 26,000 firefighters and support personnel are currently assigned to large fires, according to the center.