People wait in line to receive a COVID-19 vaccine at a FEMA vaccination center at Miami Dade College on April 5. With FEMA leading the federal vaccination effort in addition to the agency's more traditional disaster-response duties, employee burnout is a concern.

People wait in line to receive a COVID-19 vaccine at a FEMA vaccination center at Miami Dade College on April 5. With FEMA leading the federal vaccination effort in addition to the agency's more traditional disaster-response duties, employee burnout is a concern. Lynne Sladky / AP

With Hurricane Season Looming, FEMA Aims to Stave Off Burnout After 'Tiresome' Year

Some offices are at 10% capacity due to widespread deployments, leaving few employees behind to prepare for upcoming storms.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is currently overseeing the deployment of 10,000 personnel across the country battling an array of crises, but even those still at their desk jobs are facing unprecedented pressures. 

“I’m supporting two people who are out,” said one career FEMA employee based in Philadelphia. “It’s a lot for one person.” 

Most responders under FEMA’s purview are assisting at COVID-19 vaccination sites, though they are also supporting ongoing disaster assistance efforts and the processing and housing of migrants at the southern border. Only about 20% of FEMA’s cadre of largely temporary, intermittent emergency response workers is still available for deployment with hurricane season—typically FEMA’s busiest time of the year—set to begin June 1.   

“It’s always a concern,” Robert Fenton, currently the top official at FEMA, told a Senate committee last week. “It’s something I watch. I look at future threats and I manage that risk to make sure we have enough resources.”

The Philadelphia-based FEMA employee himself deployed for two months to support COVID-19 response efforts last year, but is now back in his “steady state” role. Just 10% of his colleagues have joined him there, with the rest still out in the field. While he is currently performing three jobs, much of his office’s normal work is simply not getting done. 

“What’s the low hanging fruit that we can push to the next fiscal year?” the long-time FEMA veteran said, describing conversations with his supervisor. Only the most pressing work of getting emergency preparedness awards out the door is currently taking place. “We’ve scaled back a lot of the normal tempo just to focus on statutory obligations,” he said. 

While juggling multiple balls in the air is standard procedure for FEMA, doing so for such an extended period of time spread over such a wide area—there are currently emergencies declared in every state and territory in the country—is unprecedented. Fifty-one of FEMA’s 52 federal response coordinators are currently deployed, lawmakers said at last week's hearing, including supporting more than 1,500 vaccination sites. 

“It’s nonstop,” said another FEMA worker at the agency’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. Things had begun to marginally slow down with the COVID-19 response and after the 2020 hurricane and wildfire seasons, but then President Biden assigned FEMA to lead the federal vaccination campaign and efforts ramped back up to their peak level. 

“Some of us are at the point of getting burned out,” the D.C. employee said. “Because it’s constant, constant and constant.” 

Steve Reaves, a long-time FEMA employee who leads the American Federation of Government Employees chapter that represents the agency’s workforce, said he has never seen such unending pressure on the organization. 

“We’re constantly busy,” Reaves said. “There’s never an offseason for us anymore.” 

FEMA workers typically had several months around the winter to “refresh and restock,” he explained, but the combination of the pandemic and the growing frequency and intensity of storms has made emergency response more of a year-round endeavor. Despite the evolving nature of the work, FEMA’s 5,000-person permanent, full-time workforce has remained steady for years. 

“Regardless of trending storms, global warming and pandemics, our staffing hasn’t changed,” Reaves said. “Our mission has increased greatly without our full-time staff increasing greatly.” Reaves has asked FEMA to request that the Office of Personnel Management conduct a “comprehensive manpower management survey” to ensure FEMA has an appropriately sized workforce.

In Biden's preliminary fiscal 2022 budget blueprint, FEMA requested an additional $540 million above its current funding to "incorporate climate impacts into pre-disaster planning and resilience efforts." The White House said the plan would increase the number of FEMA staff for disaster response, but did not specify by how many. FEMA declined to comment for this story. 

In the meantime, FEMA workers said the agency is recalling employees back to their normal duty areas to prepare for storms and fires in the months ahead. The recalls will serve to both allow the agency to conduct its normal work ahead of its busy season and give weary staff time to catch their breath. 

The Washington-based employee said he recently assisted in awarding a contract to provide 1,400 individuals to staff up vaccination sites. The goal, he said, was to bring deployed FEMA personnel back more quickly. 

“Rest them up a little bit to get them prepared to go back out for hurricane season,” he said. He added the last year has been “tiresome,” but he has been encouraged by his leadership instructing him to take time away and “not try to sit here and do everything.” 

The worker in Philadelphia also noticed the change, adding management has been “really supportive, knowing there could be burnout.” 

“There's a really strong effort to take time, get rest,” he said. The agency is aiming to “bring people back in time to detox and kind of transition before we hit the ground running on June 1.”

While the employees said they were exhausted, they explained the tasks were part of what they signed up for. 

“It’s a phenomenal thing to see,” the Philadelphia employee said. “We switch into disaster response mode and everything sort of falls into line and we work things through. We all know the core of the mission is to respond. We know that. We accept that.” 

Lawmakers at last week's hearing appeared sympathetic to the plight of FEMA workers. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., the top Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee panel that determines funding for the Homeland Security Department, suggested that more resources may be necessary. 

“Our manpower is getting low,” Moore Capito said. “The men and women of FEMA perform a very diverse array of duties and I think that’s something that, as we’re looking at funding, that’s something we should look at.” 

Reaves, the FEMA employee and union president, said the agency can no longer conduct its normal duties. 

“Our steady state is broken,” he said, warning of dire consequences. “If our mission is broken, we know the critical effects of that.” 

As exhaustion sets in, the Philly-based worker said he is reminding himself of the historic nature of his work. When the nation looks back on the pandemic long after he retires, he said he hopes the focus will be not just on the lives lost but also on "the people who stepped up." 

“When I look back on my career,” he said, “I can say this was one particular area where I made a difference.”