Hazardous duty demands equity in pay and benefits

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In a recent New York Times article I learned that the men and women fighting the forest fires that plague us every summer receive varying levels of pay and benefits depending on their employment status. The teams of firefighters include full and part-time employees from the U.S. Forest Service as well as people employed seasonally or by private contractors.

On the surface it is very similar to the employment practices of big retailers and delivery services during the Christmas shopping season; they hire people on a part-time basis to meet the demands of their busy season. Part-time and full-time employees work side-by-side but the part-time and seasonal employees are not provided with benefits and are probably paid a lower wage.

But a seasonal or part-time employee working for UPS or Macy’s over the holidays isn’t putting his life on the line.

Last June a team of 19 firefighters died while working together fighting a wild fire in Arizona; 13 of those 19 men were seasonal employees. They faced an equal amount of danger but without equal benefits protecting them in case of injury or death.

I understand the need for flexible staffing and I appreciate the difficulty of predicting the quantity and size of forest fires. What I don’t understand is why one firefighter’s life is worth so much less than another’s.

The very same government bureaucrats, politicians and agency administrators who create rules and polices should take the time to look at the impact those policies have on firefighters and their families. Benefits that are needed to care for severe injuries or allow a family to bury their loved one should not be determined by artificial distinctions across job classifications.

The policy and rule writers who sit safely behind their desks each day won’t make benefits for firefighters a priority unless the voters speak up. It should not be acceptable to blame the policies and say “there is nothing I can do”.

We are a nation that relies on many volunteers to fight fires and serve on rescue and recovery teams. Every small community depends on conscientious citizens to step forward and take on tasks that are difficult and dangerous.

If you get to know a member of one of the volunteer firefighter districts you will learn that they put in many long hours each year in training. They respond without hesitation when called and they save lives and homes while missing out on time with their own family and friends.

When one of these volunteers or a part-time or seasonal firefighter dies or is injured, the community may learn that his or her benefits aren’t much — it all depends on cold hard policy. The community will rally behind a fundraising effort and may raise several thousand dollars. But what if the community suddenly has 13 families in need? Will there be enough money contributed to cover the immediate expenses and soften their financial fall without a husband and father?

We don’t know where or when fires will strike, but we know that they will. And we don’t know who will be seriously injured or whose life will end, but we know there will be casualties.

I have ideas but no clear solution to make the payments (that no one wants to receive) more equitable. If we make it a priority in our communities to look after those who serve us and ask our representatives in local, state and federal office to reduce the degree of inequity in these policies it would be a good step toward righting what feels like a terrible wrong.

Virginia Detweiler, based in Walla Walla, provides human resource services and management training to businesses in southeastern Washington with her firm HR Partner on Call. Her columns are written as a service to employers and employees and rely on reader questions and comments for topical material. Contact her by email at hrpartneroncall@gmail.com or phone at 509-529-1910. Because of job and employer sensitivities, care is taken to protect identities.

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