Union praises President Biden's 'life-changing' pay increase for federal firefighters

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The increase in pay for federal wildland firefighters comes as the United Nations warns of a 'global wildfire crisis.'

President Joe Biden on Tuesday announced a pay raise for federal wildland firefighters, funded by $600 million from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

"There's an old expression that God made man — and then he made a few firefighters," Biden said in a statement issued by the White House. "Firefighters are some of the bravest men and women among us, and the backbones of our communities, protecting our homes, businesses, schools, and families from catastrophe."

Firefighters employed by the U.S. Forest Service, an agency of the Department of Agriculture, and by the Department of the Interior were supposed to receive a pay increase as of Oct. 1, 2021 under the $1.9 trillion infrastructure law signed by Biden on Nov. 15, 2021. The temporary increases announced by the White House on Tuesday will be retroactive to Oct. 1, and will amount to the lesser of $20,000 or 50% of a firefighter's current base salary through September 2023. The increases come after Biden raised the minimum wage for federal firefighters to $15 per hour in 2021.

The infrastructure law was passed on a bipartisan basis, with 19 Senate Republicans and 13 House Republicans joining nearly all Democrats in Congress to vote for it.

Biden noted his support for ongoing efforts in Congress to permanently increase firefighter pay, specifically citing the role of climate change in causing more wildfires.

"I will do everything in my power, including working with Congress to secure long-term funding, to make sure these heroes keep earning the paychecks — and dignity — they deserve," he said.

The National Federation of Federal Employees, which represents civil service workers in most government departments and agencies, praised the move.

"For wildland firefighters, the additional income will give them the opportunity to pay for housing, childcare, and other everyday necessities," union president Randy Erwin said in a statement. "This will be life-changing for thousands of federal wildland firefighters who truly deserve it."

Praising the Biden administration, Erwin continued, "They did the right thing and implemented this pay increase nationwide and as fast as they could. As a consequence, communities are going to be protected and lives are going to be saved. It really is that simple." Better pay, he said, will aid in the recruitment and retention of the federal firefighter workforce, currently a problem in every geographic area, according to an interagency FAQ on the implementation of the new pay schedule.

The increase follows a record year for wildfires in the United States. The Department of the Interior reported that 48,487 fires burned more than 6.5 million acres in 2021, killing 15 wildland firefighters and 33 civilians and destroying 4,818 structures.

A February report from the United Nations Environment Programme notes that climate change and changes in land use are making wildfires worse around the world. The report describes the issue as a "global wildfire crisis."

"The heating of the planet is turning landscapes into tinderboxes," the report states, "while more extreme weather means stronger, hotter, drier winds to fan the flames."

In addition to the pay increase, the Biden administration announced Friday that the departments of the Interior and Agriculture are jointly creating a program to focus on the physical and mental well-being of wildland firefighters, also funded by the infrastructure law.

Biden has long enjoyed the support of firefighters. In 2019, the International Association of Fire Fighters endorsed Biden's presidential campaign. Early in 2021, the association praised Biden for repealing what they characterized as the "dangerous anti-union actions" of the administration of former President Donald Trump.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.