Lofgren Introduces Bill to Waive Overtime Pay Caps for Wildland Firefighters, Ensure Permanent Fair Pay
WASHINGTON, DC – Today, coinciding with the reported announcement by President Biden to raise federal firefighter pay, Representative Zoe Lofgren (CA-19) – the elected Chair of the California Democratic Congressional Delegation – is leading Reps. Mike Thompson (CA-05), Jared Huffman (CA-02), Scott Peters (CA-52), Jimmy Panetta (CA-20), Joe Neguse (CO-02), and Katie Porter (CA-45) in introducing the Wildland Firefighter Fair Pay Act to waive annual premium pay caps for federal firefighters working overtime to battle increasingly intense wildfires. The bill also calls for a reevaluation of employment classifications and pay structure in recognition of growing demands.
Federal firefighters who work for the Departments of Agriculture and Interior are paid on the general schedule pay scale based on their seniority and performance. They make a base salary and are paid overtime when they exceed eight hours a day. However, there is an annual salary cap that limits how many overtime hours for which they can be paid. During wildfire season, many federally employed firefighters exceed the annual pay cap and receive no pay for additional overtime hours worked, while others are forced to pay back money they rightfully earned fighting wildfires.
“The 2021 fire season has already begun, and it’s on pace to be much worse than the historic season observed across the West last year,” said Rep. Lofgren. “We’re going to need more firefighters serving our communities, so Congress needs to ensure the federal service earns a fair wage and that we remove obstacles that make it harder for our country to respond to wildfires. Eliminating this cap as another, sadly, disastrous wildfire year kicks off is the right thing to do for the firefighting workforce and for our communities.”
The current overtime pay cap serves as a disincentive for many experienced firefighters who would deploy to wildfire incidents, especially later in the fire season. The Forest Service estimates that up to 500 senior-level firefighters either stop participating or do not request pay for hours worked once they reach the pay cap. This has a significant effect on federal wildfire response capabilities.
The Wildland Firefighter Fair Pay Act is the House companion to S.138, legislation sponsored by Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA).
“Wildfires are becoming bigger, hotter and more frequent as climate change continues to expand the traditional fire season,” said Sen. Feinstein. “In California, most of those fires are on federal land, which leaves federally employed firefighters responsible for extinguishing them. The current overtime pay cap for these brave men and women is outdated and represents a significant hurdle in retaining our most-experienced firefighters. Lifting this cap would ensure that these first responders are fairly paid for their hard work while helping build a federal firefighting service that can meet the challenges of our ‘new normal’ when it comes to wildfires.”
The bill also directs the Departments of Agriculture and Interior to submit a report on the resources, policies, personnel or structural changes, and other investments necessary to support an expanded, year-round firefighting workforce. It is the first step to a paradigm shift in forest management to create longer-term solutions for our firefighters and communities.
Relevant Facts About U.S. & CA Wildfires
In 2020, U.S. wildfires burned 10.27 million acres, the highest annual total since accurate recordkeeping began.
- The previous record was 10.13 million acres in 2015.
- In 2015, more than 50% of the burned acreage was caused by wildfires in Alaska, whereas over 98% of the acreage burned in 2020 was in the contiguous U.S.
- California experienced 9,600 fires in 2020 that killed 33 people, burned 4.1 million acres and destroyed 10,000 structures.
So far in 2021, the number of new wildfires in the U.S. is already at a 10-year high, with almost 200,000 more acres of wildland burned than this time last year.
- Firefighters in California are currently battling at least six large wildfires throughout the state.
- In Arizona, almost 1,000 firefighters are battling the Telegraph Fire, which has burned over 100,000 acres since June 4.
Recent, Related Lofgren Actions
- On June 29, 2021, Lofgren chaired a House Science, Space, and Technology Committee hearing on the state of federal wildland fire science.
- On June 28, 2021, the House passed the National Science Foundation (NSF) for the Future Act, which included a provision from Lofgren to support wildfire resilience efforts. The NSF for the Future Act passed the SST Committee on June 28, 2021.
- On March 24, 2021, Lofgren, along with Reps. Jerry McNerney (CA-09), Ed Perlmutter (CO-07), Suzanne Bonamici (OR-01) and California Senators Dianne Feinstein and Alex Padilla, led 47 members of Congress in urging the Biden Administration to “go big” on funding for science-based strategies to prevent and respond to destructive wildfires. The lawmakers called for the Administration to include at least $200 million for wildfire science in its Fiscal Year 2022 budget request.
- On September 24, 2020, Lofgren-authored wildfire prevention and power shutoff provisions passed the House. They were included in H.R. 4447, the Clean Economy Jobs and Innovation Act.