U.S. Forest Service file photo

Biden Signs Wildland Firefighter Pay Reform Into Law as Part of Infrastructure Package

Some federal wildland firefighters could see up to a $20,000 increase in base pay, and their positions will shift to a new “wildland firefighter” occupational series.

President Biden signed the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill into law Monday, setting federal wildland firefighters up for significant reforms to their pay and benefits.

Federal agencies have struggled to retain federal firefighters, in part because their salaries come in significantly lower than their counterparts in state and local governments. Biden earlier this year directed his administration to provide a temporary increase to their pay in the form of cash bonuses and awards to ensure they made at least $15 per hour.

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (H.R. 3684) goes further to provide steep pay increases to federal firefighters on a permanent basis, as well as to ensure more are permanent federal employees, rather than seasonal or part-time workers.

The law tasks the Office of Personnel Management with creating a new occupational series for wildland firefighters within 180 days. Currently, federal firefighters are classified in a more general “forestry technician” job category, meaning entry level hires often start at a GS-3 salary. Additionally, the law requires the Interior and Agriculture departments to convert at least 1,000 seasonal wildland firefighters to permanent, full-time and year-round federal workers.

The law also instructs the agencies to provide an increase in base salary of 50% or $20,000—whichever is smaller—for wildland firefighters if the agency heads “make a written determination” that the position is located in a region where it is difficult to recruit or retain firefighters.

And it requires the secretaries of Interior and Agriculture to develop recommendations to mitigate firefighters’ exposure to environmental hazards and to provide all wildland firefighters, including temporary and seasonal workers, with mental health benefits, including treatment for post traumatic stress disorder, by Oct. 1, 2022.

In a statement, National Federation of Federal Employees National President Randy Erwin, whose union represents federal firefighters, applauded Congress and Biden for taking action to address the pay disparities between federal firefighters and their state and local counterparts.

“In anticipation of the law passing, we started working with the administration several months ago to move forward with implementation of the law’s provisions as quickly as possible,” Erwin said. “We are excited to engage at a deeper level now that the law is signed, and we look forward to exploring additional, meaningful ways to fight wildfires and to improve the lives and safety of our firefighters.”