Washington—The Government Accountability Office yesterday released a report requested by Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) that details the challenges faced by federal agencies seeking to hire and retain wildland firefighters.
“This detailed report provides further evidence that Congress must focus on improving the hiring and retention of federal wildland firefighters to protect lives, property and land,” Senator Feinstein said. “We no longer face annual fire seasons, we now confront a year-round threat of catastrophic wildfires. Unfortunately, the federal government – which owns 58 percent of the forest land in California – has been slow to adapt, leaving agencies responsible for managing federal forests and fighting wildfires short-staffed and underfunded. This report provides valuable recommendations to improve the hiring and retention of federal wildland firefighters. I will continue to prioritize this issue and thank GAO for its contribution with this report.”
Feinstein in April 2021 led a bipartisan group of senators to request the report.
GAO identified seven key barriers to hiring and retaining federal wildland firefighters:
- Low pay that fails to reflect the dangers of firefighting was a key barrier, compounded by higher rates of pay by state firefighting agencies, which leads federal employees to joint those state agencies. Senator Feinstein secured a temporary pay supplement of up to $20,000 per year for federal firefighters in the bipartisan infrastructure law. Federal agencies are also working to develop a proposal to OMB for a permanent pay raise.
- Career advancement challenges, including a lack of opportunity to complete required internal and external training courses to qualify for career advancement. This is particularly true for seasonal employees.
- Poor work-life balance brought on by long work hours and workplace pressures that make it hard to take time off. This problem is exacerbated when firefighting units are not fully staffed.
- Mental health challenges brought about by high levels of stress inherent with this dangerous job. This includes high rates of suicide and mental health disorders.
- Remote or expensive duty stations that lead to a lack of affordable housing. Senator Feinstein is advocating for a report in the fiscal year 2023 government funding bill by the Forest Service on housing and deferred maintenance needs to relieve this problem.
- Limited workforce diversity that makes it difficult for women and underrepresented ethnic groups to feel accepted. There have also been reports of sexual harassment of woman firefighters. Currently, 84 percent of firefighters are men and 72 percent are white.
- Hiring process challenges, including the difficulty of navigating the federal USA Jobs employment website, which can lead to delays and a potentially months-long hiring process.
Senator Feinstein has prioritized the hiring and retention of federal wildland firefighters. Among the actions she has taken in recent years:
- Secured $600 million in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act to improve recruitment and retention by increasing pay up to $20,000 for federal wildland firefighters through October 2023. The bill also converted 1,000 seasonal firefighting positions to permanent positions.
- Authored the Wildland Firefighter Fair Pay Act, included in the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2022, which waived the overtime pay cap for federal wildland firefighters in 2022.
- Senator Feinstein is leading efforts to include a similar provision in the fiscal year 2023 Interior Appropriations bill to waive overtime pay caps.
- Encouraged the Biden administration to create a special unit within the Office of Workers’ Compensation to address federal firefighters’ health and injury claims. The Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs created this new unit in April.
- Led efforts in the fiscal year 2023 Interior Appropriations bill to require a comprehensive report on maintenance needs and availability of additional housing for federal wildland firefighters.