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032916-ir-nws-firefighter-jobs (IR copy)

Wildland firefighters walk past hoses

laid on the BNSF railroad trestle near the Thompson-Divide Complex’s Sheep fire, burning about 1 mile south of Essex, on Aug. 25, 2015.

The Land Management Workforce Flexibility Act would allow seasonal firefighters to compete for federal jobs open only to current full-time employees after they had accumulated 24 months total experience.

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MISSOULA -- The path from seasonal work to full-time careers was supposed to get smoother for wildland firefighters after Congress passed a law improving their hiring procedures last year.

But the bill got hamstrung by the federal Office of Personnel Management, according to its advocates. Last week, Sen. Jon Tester, who carried the Land Management Workforce Flexibility Act in the Senate, had his staff meet in an attempt to fix the problem.

“In the old days, it was much easier to compete under the civil-service system for jobs,” said Bob Beckley, a U.S. Forest Service project leader and member of the National Federation of Federal Employees union. “Nowadays, it’s pretty much a closed system for us. That’s why the act was so important for those long-term temporary employees.”

The act passed both the House and Senate on unanimous voice votes, and President Obama signed it on Aug. 7, 2015. It would have allowed temporary federal employees, such as wildland firefighters, wilderness rangers, research biologists and others on so-called “1039 status” to compete for federal jobs open only to current full-time employees after they had accumulated 24 months total experience.

“1039” is the number of work hours just short of six months’ employment, and is the ceiling imposed on most seasonal federal workers.

“We focused on firefighters because they’re a major part of what we do in the Forest Service,” Beckley said. “We’re really an all-risk, all-hazard agency these days, and those folks respond to all kinds of natural disasters -- floods, earthquakes, hurricanes -- if there’s a natural disaster, these are the people who show up. But if you’re limiting those employees to 1,039 hours, and you get Hurricane Sandy, those people are not going.”

The new law passed Congress unanimously last year, but ran into trouble in December. NFFA Vice President Mark Davis said the problem revolved around a single word: “internal.”

“There’s a phrase in the bill saying guys have access to the same ‘internal merit promotion procedures’ as other full-time agency employees,” Davis said. “But what OPM has done is apply that to a noun that’s not in the bill -- ‘internal workforce’ -- and then say the law only applies to jobs available to the internal workforce of a particular agency. If the job is open to outside applicants from other agencies, then firefighters can’t get past square zero.”

In other words, if a Forest Service permanent job is open to applicants from the Bureau of Land Management or Department of Defense, then long-term temporary Forest Service workers wouldn’t be considered. Beckley said that wastes the skills of experienced workers who’ve spent multiple seasons learning their task, but can’t turn that dedication into a career.

“We’re not talking about college students fighting fire as a summer job,” Beckley said. “This is for the people who’ve trained in resource management and want to work for the National Park Service or BLM or Forest Service as a career. We put a lot of time and training into getting people up to that journeyman level. And when we don’t allow them to compete for those internal vacancies, they don’t stick around. They leave.”

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On Thursday, Tester said his staff met face-to-face with their OPM colleagues to work out a solution.

“We need to ensure firefighters are getting a fair shake and I believe the purpose of this bill is clear,” Tester said. “The bill passed Congress unanimously and I am hopeful that we are able to find common ground with the administration during this process for the sake of these firefighters.”

Davis said the Forest Service employs about 10,000 people on temporary seasonal status, and roughly 60 percent of them are wildland firefighters.

“I believe thousands of wildland firefighters would qualify for this,” Davis said. “We thought when we got an act of Congress we could hang up the tools. I worked with Congress for six years to tear down a wall that makes no sense, and OPM put it right back up.”

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Rob Chaney can be reached at rchaney@missoulian.com.

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