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A Pay Bump for Federal Firefighters Is Set to End Soon, Raising Fears of Exodus

  • Federal wildland firefighters could see sizable pay cuts if Congress doesn’t step in soon.
  • Many fear that there could be an exodus of firefighters at a time when the US can least afford it.
  • In recent years, extreme weather events have necessitated robust responses to wildfires. 

Next month, thousands of federal firefighters may face a dreaded scenario that they’ve long sought to avoid: hefty pay cuts.

And the cuts could reduce staffing levels among the federal workforce, potentially imperiling one of the country’s most significant lines of defense against wildfires, which have become more prevalent in recent years.

Last year, federal wildland firefighters were afforded additional pay through a short-term measure, with the heightened salaries seen as a way to retain and draw in workers.

But federal officials are now saying that a wave of firefighters could leave their positions in search of better-paying roles if the pay increases are not made permanent, according to The Times.

After President Joe Biden boosted the minimum wage for wildland firefighters from $13 an hour to $15 an hour, he has pushed for a permanent pay bump.

Congress later signed off on a pay raise of $20,000 a year, or 50% of a base salary for federal firefighters.

Per the US Department of Agriculture, the entry-level salary for a federal wildland firefighter is roughly $34,000, absent the temporary pay increase.

But the legislative fix was only temporary, and Biden pushed for the permanent pay when he submitted his administration’s 2024 budget earlier this year.

Democratic Rep. Joe Neguse of Colorado has been one of the most prominent supports of the increased firefighter pay on Capitol Hill. But with the threat of a showdown looming, coupled with the fact that the House still doesn’t have a speaker after Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California was ousted from the role last week, time is running out for a permanent solution.

With the risk of wildfires becoming a growing environmental and economic threat across the country, but especially in Interior West states like Colorado, the threat of an exodus of firefighters has many worried.

The National Federation of Federal Employees recently said that “30 percent to 50 percent of the workforce” could leave their positions if the pay increases are no longer in effect.

“As a result, this country will be unable to respond to megafires and other emergencies because Congress failed to come to an agreement to appropriately pay the folks who risk their lives to defend us from wildfires,” the federation said in a statement.

Neguse has introduced legislation that would permanently boost federal firefighter pay, but it has so far not advanced in the House.

“I’m deeply concerned about the inability of Congress to muster the political will to get this done,” the congressman told The Times. “The reality is that our wild-land firefighters are woefully undercompensated.”

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