Part-time FEMA workers now eligible for health care benefits

Al Behrman/AP

Part-time emergency employees deployed to assist in Superstorm Sandy relief efforts have won federal health benefits, the Office of Personnel Management announced Friday.

The Office of Personnel Management is issuing an interim final rule, obtained by Government Executive, to expand the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program to part-time workers with FEMA, known as reservists. The rule takes effect immediately.

The announcement comes after an online petition requesting the benefits received nearly 100,000 signatures in the 10 days since it was launched.

A May Government Accountability Office report found that reservists, who make up 57 percent of FEMA’s workforce, do not receive any federal health benefits. When many of these reservists -- also known as disaster assistance employees -- were deployed in support of Sandy relief, Dena Patrick decided to take action.

The disaster assistance employees serve two-year appointments and are paid only when deployed.

Patrick -- founder of Wishadoo!, a grass-roots community organizing website -- thought  FEMA employees who have been on the front lines in areas devastated by Sandy -- knocking on doors, delivering mobile homes and supervising the disbursement of more than $250 million in grants to those affected by the storm -- had earned their benefits and launched a campaign on their behalf.

“Thousands of our fellow citizens are on call year round, deployed at a moment's notice by FEMA to emergency and disaster areas,” Patrick wrote in on an online petition on Change.org. “This now includes communities most affected by Hurricane Sandy . . . Many of these employees are afraid to speak out publicly for fear of losing their jobs, which they love. That’s why I am standing up for these courageous and selfless individuals, and call on FEMA and the Obama administration to provide them with federal health benefits.”

It is not the first time advocates have turned to digital protest to increase benefits for part-time federal workers; part-time firefighter John Lauer launched a similar effort in June in support of Forest Service workers who were fighting wildfires in Colorado.

Lauer’s effort was also successful. OPM granted the firefighters health benefits in July.

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