A bill passed by the House would increase federal firefighters’ pay to a base of $20 an hour—making them a GS-6, Step 3 at minimum.

A bill passed by the House would increase federal firefighters’ pay to a base of $20 an hour—making them a GS-6, Step 3 at minimum. Forest Service file photo

Another Firefighter Compensation Bill Passes, and More

A weekly roundup of pay and benefits news.

The House last week passed another set of measures aimed at improving the pay and benefits of federal wildland firefighters.

The Wildfire Response and Drought Resiliency Act (H.R. 5118), introduced by Rep. Joe Neguse, D-Colo., features a mix of natural disaster and drought mitigation programs, as well as key provisions from a bill Neguse and Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., introduced last year that would overhaul federal firefighters’ pay and benefits.

The bill would increase federal firefighters’ pay to a base of $20 an hour—making them a GS-6, Step 3 at minimum—and make their compensation “portal-to-portal,” a phrase used to describe when employees are paid for time on the job but not performing their primary duties. It also provides annual pay adjustments, a disability annuity, hazard pay, and seven days of paid mental health leave.

The bill also would require agencies to submit a report to Congress comparing the compensation of federal firefighters with that of their counterparts in state and local governments. And it requires agencies who employ firefighters outside of wildfire response to establish pay parity with wildland firefighters within one year.

Federal wildland firefighters have been the focus on several efforts to improve pay and benefits within the federal government over the past 18 months. President Biden last year announced that he would increase their pay to meet the $15 minimum wage he implemented for federal workers and contractors, and in May, the House passed legislation to reform the federal government’s workers compensation program to make it easier for firefighters suffering from chronic illnesses to access benefits.

In June, Biden announced that all federal wildland firefighters would receive a temporary pay increase of $20,000 per year or 50% of their base salary, whichever is lower, retroactive to October 2021. The pay raise was the result of a provision of the bipartisan infrastructure law, and the White House said it would work with Congress to make the increase permanent.

Randy Erwin, national president of the National Federation of Federal Employees, thanked lawmakers for their efforts to permanently reform federal firefighter compensation.

“I am grateful that this broad legislation includes vital support for federal wildland firefighters,” Erwin said. “Although we have made significant progress towards delivering necessary workforce reforms, there is still much work to do . . . As wildfires continue to rage in the Western states and as more of the U.S. becomes vulnerable to dangerous wildfires, Congress must take action on this and other supportive measures immediately.”

Senate Panel Advances First Responder Retirement Reform

A Senate panel on Wednesday voted unanimously to advance a bill aimed at reforming the retirement system for federal first responders who are injured during their service and forced to pursue other jobs in the federal government.

Federal workers in professions like law enforcement and firefighting are part of an accelerated version of the federal government’s retirement benefits program, paying more toward their defined benefit pensions each pay check in exchange for being able to receive a full annuity once they have served 20 years and reached age 50. They also are required to retire at age 57.

But currently, if they are injured on the job and unable to continue in that role, they lose access to that accelerated retirement program and are not refunded for the greater payments they made before getting hurt.

The First Responder Fair RETIRE Act (H.R. 521), which passed the House last month, would allow federal first responders who are forced into another job in the federal government after an on-the-job injury to remain in the accelerated retirement system and retire after they have served 20 years and reached age 50. It also grants those employees the option to receive a refund of their previous accelerated contributions if they leave federal service before qualifying for their annuity.

The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee voted unanimously to send the bill to the Senate floor for consideration. If passed, it would head to President Biden’s desk for enactment.

Larry Cosme, national president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, said the bill will “bring fairness” to federal first responders’ retirement benefits.

“All too often [federal first responders’] dedication to duty means federal law enforcement must willingly place themselves in harm’s way and sacrifice their physical safety for the benefit of our nation,” he said. “It is absolutely unconscionable that the government would also require federal law enforcement officers to sacrifice their financial security should they become permanently disabled in the line of duty. But that’s exactly what happens under the federal government’s current retirement system.”