Federal wildfire fighters seek health benefits

LM Otero/AP
An online petition asking the Obama administration to extend federal health coverage to seasonal firefighters has garnered more than 100,000 signatures in the past week.

John Lauer, a wildfire fighter with the Forest Service for the past six years, started the online petition several weeks ago. While Lauer was fighting a wildfire in Colorado last week, officials at the National Federation of Federal Employees Forest Service Council put his petition online and circulated it in an email to its members. The effort drew more than 50,000 signatures on Friday alone. As of Monday, the petition had more than 100,000 signatures.

Lauer started the petition after his godson, Rudy, was born prematurely, leaving Rudy’s father, a fellow firefighter, with $70,000 in hospital bills that he and his wife are unable to pay. He has seen other colleagues in similar situations, he says.

“I have been a wild land firefighter for six years and I still don’t have health insurance, but I’m one of the lucky ones. I have seen the damage and suffering this lack of coverage can produce,” Lauer said.

The Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management employ the largest cadre of seasonal temporary employees in the federal government -- employees who, by statute, are unable to receive health insurance, life insurance or retirement benefits. Because they are temporary, these employees also are not eligible for step increases or competitive standing if were they to apply for career jobs.

The 10,000 to 15,000 temporary employees hired by the Forest Service comprise about 30 percent of the agency’s total workforce, according to Lauer. Although they are considered temporary, many often work the number of hours in a full year in one fire season, Lauer says. According to a 1994 regulation, temporary federal employees cannot be paid for more than 1,040 hours a year. Many serve as temporary seasonal employees every year, because the regulations allow for no limit on extensions or noncompetitive reappointments.

Lauer said the firefighters ultimately want federal legislation that would give them health benefits, “but we know Congress can be slow moving. That’s why we are asking President Obama to extend health coverage benefits to seasonal wild land firefighters.”

NFFE officials also met with the Office of Personnel Management late last week to discuss extending health coverage to these employees, following what they described as viral growth of the petition.

Unions representing long-term temporary Forest Service workers, and some lawmakers, have long been vocal about the need for more opportunities for such employees. Because they lack competitive standing, these workers could be knocked out of contention if their jobs were converted to a permanent seasonal position.

A current NFFE legislative proposal recommends granting competitive standing to these employees and authorizing land management agencies such as the Forest Service to convert long-term temporary employees into permanent positions that are eligible for health and other benefits career employees receive. Unlike the petition request, NFEE’s plan would not immediately grant long-term temporary employees health benefits.

The legislative proposal is more incremental than the approach Lauer’s petition advocates. According to NFFE Forest Service Council President Mark Davis, the administration can take action to change these regulations without Congress’ approval. OPM regulations include a list of seasonal employees they cannot exclude in granting health benefits, so the petitioners may want to explore that option, he said.

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