Worker Correspondents: Wildland Firefighters Face Job Insecurity and Suppressed Wages

By an Oregon Firefighter

In the Pacific Northwest, government agencies and independent contracting companies use several means to exploit wildland firefighters, including keeping wages low and contributing to unstable job conditions.

Wildland firefighting is a physically and mentally exhausting profession that entails long shifts, living away from friends and family for weeks or even months at a time, and working in an arduous and dangerous work environment. In four years as a wildland firefighter, I have witnessed and experienced first-hand the exploitation that workers endure under both private contractors and government agencies.

Like many young people, I was attracted to the profession for the promise of relatively high pay compared with that of other entry-level jobs. However, wages begin at around $12 to $15 an hour for new firefighters, and it is only by working 100+ hour weeks for several months that firefighters earn more than other entry-level working-class jobs in a short period of time.

Many firefighters work for private companies that compete for government contracts. Few contractors offer benefits, instead compensating with hazard pay for hours worked on the fire—usually around $3 to $5 extra an hour. Pay increases are fairly marginal with each season worked. I spoke with a foreman working as crew boss who earned only around $20 per hour after nearly ten years.

State workers encounter a complicated, bureaucratic system where the administration utilizes every loophole available to undercut workers’ hours and pay. For example, the Oregon Department of Forestry kept my coworkers assigned to a fire for 13 days, during the off-season when wages are lower, because after 14 days workers are entitled to their higher, fire-season wages. I once worked a 24-hour shift where only 6 hours were technically eligible for overtime, due to the day that the end of the work week fell on and after unpaid lunches were subtracted.

The bosses are able to keep wages low in part because they ensure that the employment is unstable. Contractors and agencies provide very few year-round positions, and I have struggled to keep steady jobs during the winter. Many state workers take much-lower-paying jobs in the winter, often with other government agencies, to fill their gaps in employment. Most of the large contractors emphasize to their workers that they are ‘just a number,’ replaceable at any time, threatening no-cause termination for small infractions. This expendability compounds the instability due to the seasonal, weather-dependent nature of the work.


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