Forest Service wildfire fighter John Lauer’s online crusade to extend federal health coverage to his colleagues, temporary seasonal employees who have long been ineligible for benefits, quickly went viral last week. Although his approach is somewhat novel, the cause is not.
Unions and even lawmakers have long struggled to get full-time benefits for temporary workers through legislation, rather than through the administrative route Lauer is aiming for. Many of these employees are with the National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management and perform dangerous work for long hours during specific times of the year. But under a 1994 federal regulation, temporary federal employees cannot be paid for more than 1,040 hours annually. Firefighters such as Lauer return each year because regulations do not set a limit on the number of extensions or noncompetitive reappointments that can be granted.
Many seasonal temps like firefighters also must undergo extensive training to perform their jobs, but if an agency were to elevate their roles to full-time, competitive positions they would not be eligible to apply despite their qualifications due to statutory limitations on federal workers designated as noncareer, temporary employees.
Lauer started his petition, which now has more than 100,000 signatures, in honor of a friend and fellow firefighter who is saddled with $70,000 in hospital bills that he and his wife cannot pay, after their son was born prematurely.
A look at the issue’s legislative history reveals other sad, personal stories. In 1993, Vietnam veteran and eight-year National Park Service temporary employee James Hudson died after working three eight-hour shifts in his temporary job helping maintain and care for the Lincoln Memorial. His widow would have received $38,400 in life insurance benefits had he been an eligible, permanent employee, but because he was a temporary employee, she and her seven children received nothing upon his death.
Many lawmakers rallied around the cause, sponsoring the James Hudson Temporary Employee Equity Act; if signed into law, the measure would have given long-term temporary employees the same health and life insurance and retirement benefits as permanent workers. Although Congress approved paying Hudson’s widow the $38,400 he would have received if he were a permanent worker, the bill never made it out of committee.
Hudson’s story was one of several over the past two decades, and the Office of Personnel Management continued to slightly tweak its temporary employee requirements. But the National Federation of Federal Employees currently has a legislative proposal on the table that attempts to incrementally work up to the ultimate goal of parity for these employees.
NFFE proposes making long-term temporary employees in land management agencies eligible to compete for career jobs like other federal employees and authorizing land management agencies that already employ long-term temps to convert their positions into permanent positions when possible. It does not immediately grant benefits to long-term temporary employees. The proposal is based on “similar authorities already in place” at some agencies, such as the Internal Revenue Service and NASA, says NFFE Forest Service Council President Mark Davis.
Davis says this legislative proposal has been in the works for years, and is “zero-cost.” The union is excited by Lauer’s petition lobbying the Obama administration for change, but the two efforts are unrelated, according to Davis. The administration can revise the regulations without Congress. Lauer says he is lobbying the administration because “we know Congress can be slow moving.” OPM does have a list of seasonal employees who cannot be excluded from benefits programs, which includes teachers in the District of Columbia who are temporarily employed, he adds.
“What I find an awful lot, is you meet with very professional, intelligent people who agree with you,” Davis says of the union’s meetings with OPM officials and lawmakers on the issue. But, he adds, “the legislative proposal is going to be a little ways down the road.”