Lofgren, Padilla introduce bill to increase overtime pay cap for wildland firefighters

SANTA CRUZ — California’s 2023 wildfire season might have been less drastic overall than previous years, but that does not mean the risk of wildfires has gone away. Every summer, federal firefighters will be on high alert to be prepared to respond whenever a massive fire breaks out.

However, there is a limit to how much firefighters are paid, which legislators have argued is not enough to compensate for the work they do. U.S. Sen. Alex Padilla and Rep. Zoe Lofgren introduced the bicameral Wildland Firefighter Fair Pay Act Thursday to increase overtime pay caps to allow U.S. Forest Service and Department of the Interior firefighters to receive higher compensation for their service.

The bill aims to increase the total possible take-home paychecks from General Schedule Step 10 to Senior Executive Service II, expand eligible employees to include National Weather Service meteorologists who deploy with firefighters for the hours they work on wildfires, and require a joint report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Department of the Interior, and the National Weather Service on the necessary staffing levels of wildland firefighting missions and incident meteorologists. It would build upon existing legislation, such as Padilla’s Wildland Firefighter Paycheck Protection Act, introduced in July to permanently increase wildland firefighter salaries.

According to a news release from Padilla’s office, approximately 20% of Forest Service permanent firefighter positions are currently vacant, which he attributes to the federal government being unable to compete with state and local fire department salaries.

“As increasingly devastating wildfire seasons scorch our forests and endanger communities across the West, our federal wildland firefighting force deserves our full support for their heroic, dangerous work on the frontlines to keep us safe,” Padilla said in a statement. “The overtime pay caps force our firefighters to make an impossible choice: walk off the line or work for free. And they always choose to protect communities and save lives. This legislation is a necessary step to make sure our firefighters continue to get fair compensation as they put their lives on the line.”

Padilla is joined by Lofgren as the lead sponsor in the House. In addition to serving as chair of the California Democratic Congressional Delegation, Lofgren’s district includes Watsonville.

“Federal wildland firefighters perform dangerous, back-breaking jobs protecting our communities,” she said in a statement. “Yet after they reach pay caps, they receive no overtime pay for the additional hours they work. Our commonsense legislation will strengthen our workforce and ensure firefighters receive the overtime pay they deserve for putting their lives on the line to protect us. Eliminating this cap is the right thing to do for firefighters, their families, and for our communities.”

The bill is sponsored in the Senate by several representatives of Western states, including Montana Sens. Steve Daines and Jon Tester, New Mexico Sens. Martin Heinrich and Ben Ray Luján and Nevada Sen. Jacky Rosen. It is co-sponsored in the House of Representatives by California Reps. Nanette Barragán, Julia Brownley, Mark DeSaulnier, Ted Lieu and Adam Schiff and led by California Reps. Jared Huffman, Jimmy Panetta, Scott Peters, Katie Porter and Mike Thompson and Colorado Rep. Joe Neguse.

The full text of the bill can be viewed at Padilla.senate.gov.