Padilla Urges Senate Leadership to Protect Wildland Firefighter Pay
WASHINGTON, D.C. — U.S. Senator Alex Padilla (D-Calif.) joined Senator Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.) and a bipartisan group of senators in urging Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to avoid mass resignations within the wildland firefighter ranks by ensuring the prompt passage of their bipartisan Wildland Firefighter Paycheck Protection Act. The other co-leads of the bill, Senators John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), Steve Daines (R-Mont.), Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.), Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), and Jon Tester (D-Mont.), also signed the letter.
The bipartisan Wildland Firefighter Paycheck Protection Act would protect the pay raise secured for wildland firefighters in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and avert a looming pay cliff. If the legislation does not pass, the pay raise will expire — risking a mass resignation that will leave the workforce unprepared to keep communities safe.
“Due to the dangers that wildfires pose to our forests and communities, a lack of action to ensure the fair treatment of our Federal wildland firefighting workforce would jeopardize national security. Therefore, we request that you take all possible actions to ensure this critical legislation passes into law before the end of the fiscal year,” wrote the senators.
Due to funding limitations, pay is set to revert to previous levels beginning on October 1, 2023. Given the lower pay and grueling nature of the work, there is great concern about the federal government’s ability to meet the staffing and labor levels required to adequately respond to wildfires across the country. This legislation would prevent these cuts from taking place.
The letter outlines how a recent report conducted by GAO found that the most commonly cited barrier to wildland firefighter recruitment and retention was low pay. Officials and stakeholders unanimously stated that the pay is too low and noted that the pay does not reflect the risk or physical demands of the work.
Senator Padilla has consistently pushed to protect wildland firefighter pay. In addition to introducing the Wildland Firefighter Paycheck Protection Act in July, Padilla supported the Biden administration’s emergency supplemental request for $15 million for the Department of the Interior to reform wildland firefighting pay through the first quarter of FY 2024. Last year, he joined a bipartisan group of Senators in urging the Administration to establish a special pay rate for federal wildland firefighters to prevent staffing shortages and strengthen wildfire response efforts. The Administration announced a temporary pay raise shortly after this request.
Full text of the letter is available here and below:
Dear Majority Leader Schumer and Minority Leader McConnell:
We are writing to urge you to take all necessary steps to avoid mass resignations within the wildland firefighter ranks by ensuring the prompt passage of S. 2272, the Wildland Firefighter Paycheck Protection Act.
The Federal wildland firefighting workforce is composed of approximately 19,000 firefighters from the Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Department of the Interior (DOI), who are responsible for protecting public lands and communities across the United States. As the fire season lengthens and the size and severity of wildland fires increase, USDA and DOI have faced mounting challenges related to the recruitment and retention of qualified wildland firefighters.
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently published a report regarding this difficulty in recruitment and retention at USDA and DOI. This report found that factors such as low pay, poor work life balance, and the excruciating mental and physical toll of working longer and more brutal fire seasons has caused many wildland firefighters to pursue better employment opportunities at state agencies and in the private sector. In this report, low pay was the most commonly cited barrier to Federal wildland firefighter recruitment and retention.
Until recently, most Federal wildland firefighters earned minimum wage-level incomes, and have not kept pace with industry competitors such as California’s Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE). In many states, entry to mid-level Federal fire positions are not competitive with private sector opportunities.
In order to rectify this escalating crisis, in 2021 Congress provided a temporary pay increase to wildland firefighters by raising rates of pay across the wildland firefighting workforce by the lesser of $20,000 per year or 50 percent of salary. However, these funds will begin to run out at the end of this month, reverting all wildland firefighters to the paltry pay levels seen just a few years ago. When asked about the impact of the looming pay cuts at a June 2023 Senate hearing, Forest Service Deputy Chief Hall-Rivera said that an estimated “30 percent to 50 percent of our firefighting workforce would leave the service and go elsewhere.” Such an event would be nothing short of calamitous for America’s forests and nearby communities.
To ensure the continued protection of communities and public lands across the United States, the bipartisan S. 2272, the Wildland Firefighter Paycheck Protection Act, was introduced to permanently increase wildland firefighter pay by establishing a new pay scale and additional pay supplement for wildland firefighters, and to require consistency between USDA and DOI in policies related to work-life balance. This legislation, drafted to ensure fiscal responsibility, was reported out of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs with broad bipartisan support.
Due to the dangers that wildfires pose to our forests and communities, a lack of action to ensure the fair treatment of our Federal wildland firefighting workforce would jeopardize national security. Therefore, we request that you take all possible actions to ensure this critical legislation passes into law before the end of the fiscal year.