WASHINGTON – Maryland and Virginia congressmen announced Tuesday they are seeking a 44 percent pay increase for thousands of federal firefighters to compensate them for the long hours they keep and the stressful and dangerous work they do.
Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes and Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, both Maryland Democrats, said the roughly 10,000 federal firefighters work three 24-hour shifts, for a weekly total of 72 hours. Part of their shift is spent sleeping.
They protect military facilities, federal buildings and national parks and are called upon to extinguish forest fires such as the ones that destroyed 8,000 acres of land along the Colorado-New Mexico border last year.
“Despite this unusual schedule, firefighters are paid under a modified version of the same … pay system used for full-time, 40-hour-per-week federal workers,” Sarbanes said in late March when he formally introduced the bill in the Senate.
He was joined Tuesday by Maryland Republican Rep. Constance A. Morella and Virginia Republican Rep. Thomas M. Davis at a press conference promoting the measure.
For several years, Sarbanes and others have been pushing legislation to get firefighters paid under an hourly schedule instead of the standard federal pay grade.
“The fairness case for this is so manifest, there can be no counter argument,” Sarbanes said.
But during congressional hearings last year, Department of Defense officials disagreed.
DOD employs 90 percent of the federal firefighters and would foot the bill for any pay increases. That increase in wages, according to Sarbanes, would be roughly $170 million over a five- year period.
Diane Disney, a DOD spokeswoman for civilian personnel policy, said last September during congressional hearings that changes in firefighter pay would come at a difficult time for DOD. She said the department was in the seventh year of a 12-year downsizing effort that includes base closures, enormous cuts in military and civilian personnel and overall cuts.
Disney could not be reached Tuesday.
Sarbanes said the excuse made by Disney is not a good one. “You can’t continue rank discrimination because it costs” money to make policies fair, he said.
The International Association of Fire Fighters took OPM pay scales and calculated what federal firefighters earn hourly compared to a 40-hour-a-week federal employee of the same grade.
For example, a GS-5 employee earns about $11.15 an hour for 40 hours of work each week, while a federal firefighter of the same grade but working more hours earns about $7.74 an hour, the association said.
“We feel we’re being treated as second-class citizens by the government. The bill corrects a long-standing problem,” said federal firefighter and bill supporter Mike O’Neill, 30, of Bowie.
Last year, Hoyer and Morella successfully pushed for a hearing with the House Government Reform and Oversight civil service subcommittee, of which Morella is a member. But Congress adjourned before the measure was called for a vote. Edward J. Lynch, senior research director for the subcommittee, said he wasn’t sure when or if a subcommittee hearing would be scheduled in this Congress. Lynch said last year’s hearing identified certain problems with the bill, including the cost to DOD. -30-