The Senate this week passed a bill to ease the transition from temporary employment to a full-time job for certain seasonal workers, sending the reform to President Obama, who is expected to sign it into law.
Congress’ bipartisan approval marked a breakthrough on an issue lawmakers have attempted to address for more than two decades. The Land Management Workforce Flexibility Act, which won unanimous support in the Senate after also advancing without opposition in the House last month, would give temporary seasonal employees at land management agencies a leg up when applying for permanent positions.
Currently, temporary seasonal employees at land management agencies can work at most six months per year. They do not receive retirement benefits and their career advancement opportunities are limited. Permanent seasonal employees -- who also only work part of the year but are placed on furlough status rather than being let go completely when their work is not required -- receive all the same (albeit pro-rated) benefits as regular, full-time workers.
Under the legislation, employees on temporary appointment at the Forest Service, Land Management Bureau, National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, Indian Affairs Bureau and Reclamation Bureau would be eligible for internal, merit promotions currently only available to permanent workers. This would benefit roughly 10,000 employees looking to get ahead.
Proponents of the bill, such as its author, Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., said it would save money by reducing employee turnover and the associated training costs.
“Ensuring that our nation’s hard working temporary seasonal employees may compete to serve the American people on a permanent basis will not only improve government efficiency and effectiveness, but it is simply the right thing to do on behalf of this dedicated workforce,” Connolly said.
Lawmakers have looked at addressing the issue since at least 1993.
While the passage will come as welcome news to Forest Service workers fighting the 36,000 fires that have burned this year, the agency is still reeling from the devastating budget effects of the ever worsening wildfire seasons.
“Climate change and other factors are causing the cost of fighting fires to rise every year,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack wrote in blog post Thursday. “But the Forest Service is expected to absorb those costs into its regular budget, which remains relatively flat.”
This forces the agency to move funds from other, “already depleted programs,” Vilsack added, noting no other natural disasters are funded that way. The Obama administration and many in Congress have long called for overhauling the way wildfire fighting is funded, but so far all legislative efforts have fizzled.
Senate Budget Committee members of both parties released a joint statement Thursday pledging to work together to find a solution to the Forest Service’s funding issue. Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., said the solution must be “durable and long lasting,” but also fit “fiscal priorities.” The lawmakers said they expect to work on such a solution over the August recess.