DENVER – A bipartisan bill introduced Tuesday and sponsored by Democratic Colorado Congressman Joe Neguse would overhaul the pay, benefits and classification systems for federal wildland firefighters if passed by Congress.
The measure, called the Tim Hart Wildland Firefighter Classification and Pay Parity Act, was named after Tim Hart, a federal smokejumper based out of Montana who died after a jump while on a fire in New Mexico in May.
The bill seeks to create new classification series for federal wildland firefighters, who are currently classified as forestry technicians and typically start out at a GS-3 pay grade and make $13.45 to start with, though the White House committed in late June to bumping minimum pay for federal firefighters to $15 an hour.
The bill, as introduced, would require the U.S. Agriculture and Interior departments to decide how many new classifications would be made for federal wildland firefighters and which skills and duties fit each classification.
It would also boost the minimum pay rate for those positions to step 3 of the GS-6 classification, which amounts to about $36,000 per year, or around $20 an hour, based off 2021 General Schedule pay scales. The pay rates would increase every year by at least as much as inflation has increased, according to the measure. Should it pass, a report would have to be submitted to Congress comparing federal firefighter pay to non-federal firefighters’ pay depending on the state. General Schedule pay rates are based off any employee’s experience and, for some positions, education – or a combination of both.
The measure would also expand when federal firefighters would receive hazard pay to include work on prescribed burns, parachuting, any tree climbing above 20 feet, tree removal and other hazards Agriculture and Interior might determine would be eligible.
Additionally, the bill would ensure that federal wildland firefighters are paid from when they receive orders until they return from their assignment, including overtime pay, on a 24-hour basis. It also would direct the Office of Personnel Management to establish guidelines paired with the new firefighter classifications to get a better grasp on pay for various types of duties and work.
It also seeks to establish $1,000 recruitment and retention bonuses that would be paid each year once a firefighter has completed their yearly work capacity test, as well as a housing stipend for firefighters who are based more than 50 miles from their primary residence.
The measure aims to establish a tuition assistance program for outside vocational training and school for firefighters hoping to transition to other careers, along with mental health programs, seven days of paid mental health leave and coverage for chronic diseases and presumptive health care coverage. The sponsors of the measure say firefighters are 30 times more likely to die by suicide than non-firefighters and have greatly increased risks of contracting cardiovascular diseases and lung cancer.
The bill, if passed and signed by the president, would also allow for temporary firefighters to put their service toward retirement, retroactive to the past 10 years of service.
The bill is sponsored by Neguse and Rep. Salud Carbajal, D-Calif., and has support from Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., and Rep. Katie Porter, D-Calif. It also has support from the Grassroots Wildland Firefighters, U.S. Hotshots Association, National Smokejumper Association, Wildland Firefighter Foundation, International Association of Firefighters and more.
Neguse, Carbajal, former wildland firefighters and Hart’s wife, Michelle Hart, all said in a news conference Tuesday the bill was much needed in addressing the physical and mental health needs of wildland firefighters and some of the other issues, including pay, that have led to firefighters leaving those careers.
“I cannot express my gratitude for including him in part of this as his legacy, so thank you so much,” Hart said.
Neguse said the bipartisan House sponsors have been working on getting a Senate sponsor for a bicameral bill and that he was “confident” Senate legislation would be introduced in coming weeks.
“As the impacts of climate change worsen, wildfire seasons are turning increasingly more devastating,” Neguse said, echoing what Colorado firefighters and other federal officials have said regarding fire seasons becoming fire years due to human-caused climate change. “As these wildfires grow larger and last longer, federal firefighters answer the call of duty, leaving behind their lives and families for months at a time, working an average of 16-hour daily shifts, sleeping in the dirt, with incredibly limited time off to reset and reconnect with loved ones. This must change. … Federal firefighters should be able to rely on the federal government for livable wages and healthy work conditions in return.”