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The firefighter pay cliff

Sep 18, 2023
Forest Service firefighter

A Forest Service firefighter in California's El Dorado County in 2021. Photo: Karl Mondon/Digital First Media/The Mercury News via Getty Images

Federal firefighters will face a pay cut if Congress doesn't act soon.

Why it matters: Conservation frustrations over spending could hamper government operations that are key to handling climate hazards, even if the standoff over appropriations is resolved.

  • Language in the House CR text appears to offer some temporary action to deal with the problem. But that measure faces its own significant hurdles.

Driving the news: A firefighter pay bump created by the infrastructure law is set to expire at the end of the month.

The other side: Some conservatives doubt the Forest Service's x-date. They are sparking a fight over deadlines similar to what happened with the debt ceiling.

  • Staff for House Natural Resources Republicans are contesting the service's assertions, saying documents provided to them by the agency suggest they have until spring of next year to act.
  • A GOP aide told Axios on Friday that "based off of their historical spending rates, they would have enough money to take them into May of 2024."
  • The aide said the "sticking point" holding up a permanent fix to the issue has been finding "pay-fors" to avoid "exactly the sort of cliff situation we're dealing with now."
  • "We set aside a certain amount of money for this, it doesn't last as long as we thought it was going to, and then that sets up expectations for firefighters and they're the ones who lose out in the end."

But, but, but: The Forest Service says this claim is "based on a misunderstanding and miscalculation of data ... that we would have been happy to expand on for the House Natural Resources Committee if they had asked."

  • Natural Resources Republicans' claims are "delusional" and "outrageous," said Steve Lenkart of the National Federation of Federal Employees, the union that represents the firefighters.
  • Lenkart said the GOP claim erroneously lumps in money that isn't for the pay bump, including hazard pay and mental health funding.

The big picture: Federal firefighters, sought after by recruiters for local and state governments as well as private industry, have languished with low pay for a long time.

  • Lenkart says the union estimates that even a short-term lapse in their raise could result in firefighters fleeing en masse to higher-paying jobs.

What we're watching: language in the short-term funding bill that would let the Ag and Interior Departments "transfer" funds "as are necessary to continue without interruption the federal wildland firefighter base salary increase."

  • They would be allowed to transfer only up to roughly $17.3 million.
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