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"Pay Freeze" Letter to Lieberman/Collins

The Honorable Susan Collins, Ranking Member
Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs
United States Senate
344 Dirksen Senate Bldg.
Washington, DC 20510

Dear Senator Collins:

On behalf of our nationwide membership, I am writing to express our shock and disappointment with your comments and those of Senator Lieberman about continuing the federal employee pay freeze contained within your recent letter to the Congressional “Super Committee.”

The FWFSA is a nationwide employee association (not a union) comprised primarily of federal wildland firefighters from all five federal land management agencies. Our diverse membership spans 29 states and includes those occupying all fire positions in all agencies from entry-level to Fire Chief.

We are disappointed with, and challenge the suggestion by some in Congress that the federal workforce is to blame for our Nation’s fiscal ills. As most Americans know, or should know, our Nation’s budgetary issues are a result of decades of policies created by both Republicans & Democrats. It did not take overnight to create the problem nor can it be solved with “meat cleaver” or “slash & burn” budget cuts.

Politicians have an advantage in that they can use the media to offer opinions and proposals that are based on ignorance and which are politically expedient. They can do so without threat of challenge by those who they are attacking. It is time the federal workforce challenge the anti-federal employee attacks from Capitol Hill with a fundamental approach…education.

Our Nation’s federal wildland firefighters continue to be at or near the bottom of the federal pay scale. Yet taxpayers and politicians expect them to risk their lives to protect our Nation’s natural resources, its citizens and their real & personal property from the ravages of wildfires not only while employed as lowly Gs-3s and Gs-4s in many instances, but now with the added burden of a pay freeze.

Contrary to the assertion by Congresswoman Bachman that all federal employees make $170,000 annually, the fact is many of these federal employees find themselves like many of our Armed Services members…at or below the poverty line while, in the case of our Armed Services Congress continues to make defense contractors rich. Conversely many of our wildland firefighters are at or below the poverty level while many non-federal firefighting resources including private contractors have turned the delivery of an efficient & effective federal wildfire response into a financial feeding frenzy.

Placing the burden of fixing our Nation’s fiscal ills on the backs of federal employees is unfair and unwise. Granted the federal government is huge and the FWFSA can only provide the expertise from the perspective of a portion of that workforce, federal wildland firefighters. Perhaps the fact that states like Maine & Connecticut do not share the same challenges of many western states from wildfires explains the lack of understanding on your part and that of Sen. Lieberman as to how such anti-federal employee proposals will have the opposite effect of that intended and in fact cost taxpayers even more.

For the past 6 years the FWFSA has established its credibility on Capitol Hill by providing testimony before House & Senate Committees as to the management of the federal land management agency fire programs and how that management adversely affects our firefighters and the American taxpayer. We have articulated the waste & fiscal mismanagement pervasive not only within the federal land management agencies but likely inherent in all federal agencies. Our commentary has been validated not only by many in Congress itself but by the GAO & Agency OIGs.

Yet despite identifying the problems and offering legislative solutions that would do exactly what both Democrats and Republicans say they want/need to do i.e. reduce federal spending and create more effective & efficient federal programs and save taxpayers perhaps $100 million each year in wildfire suppression, our efforts have gained little traction.

Those from both sides of the aisle claim to be "listening" to the American people. No doubt Democrats are listening to Democrats while Republicans are listening to Republicans. However we firmly believe that absolutely no one is listening to the federal workforce, especially those at or near the bottom of the federal pay scale. Last we checked federal employees were in fact “people” and “Americans.”

We are confident that federal employees at our near the bottom of the federal pay scale from any agency have far greater insight than anyone in Congress into the waste & fiscal mismanagement in their agency and as a result have far greater insight as to the solutions for eliminating such waste & fiscal mismanagement. Again, no one cares to listen. It is easier to offer sound bites and proposals which may sound great and to place the blame on federal employees than to acknowledge the poor or even absence of oversight from Congress on those funds it already appropriates to federal agencies.

No arbitrary figure, whether it be the $1.3 trillion associated with the debt ceiling debate or the Administration’s recent arbitrary 5% federal agency “across-the-board” cut will do anything to eliminate fiscal waste & mismanagement from any federal agency. More than likely, federal managers (certainly those in much higher grades than our life-risking firefighters and even law enforcement officers) will no doubt find ways to inoculate their fiscal waste & mismanagement practices from such cuts. As a result those at or near the bottom of the federal pay scale with be even more adversely affected as will Americans who rely on various federal programs and services.

Rather than meat-cleaver cuts, both the Congress and the Administration should re-evaluate their fiscal oversight to ensure the tax dollars already appropriated are spent as expected. All too often the public reads reports about such fiscal waste & mismanagement. Rather than addressing those fiscal practices, it appears easier for Congress simply to propose arbitrary cuts.

A classic example occurred recently where the House Government Reform & Oversight Committee felt it a priority to hold a hearing on banned substances of the National Football League (NFL) rather than hold a hearing to hear from the federal workforce as to how to reduce fiscal waste & mismanagement.

We therefore challenge you, as Ranking Member of the Senate Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs Committee to urge Sen. Lieberman to hold hearings to actually listen to the federal workforce who risk their lives while trying to make a living and raise a family on Gs-3-4 pay and while enduring a federal pay freeze.

During the last session of Congress, the House held hearings to determine why morale amongst Forest Service employees was near the bottom of a ranking of federal agencies to work for. Consider the morale of a GS-4 federal wildland firefighter away from their families for weeks on end, risking his or her life and being blamed for the fiscal problems of this Nation.

How does this affect the bottom line? For years, federal wildland firefighters have left the federal government for other fire agencies who provide better pay & benefits as a result of the agencies failing to reform archaic pay & personnel policies. Couple that with those leaving through mandatory retirement and early retirement because they are simply fed up with the management of the federal land management agency fire programs and you have a resource problem. Now add to that the diversion and mismanagement of FIRE Preparedness dollars which are often spent on non-fire programs and the result is even less inherently less expensive federal resources in the field to keep wildfires small & less costly.

The only solution is for land management agencies to augment these gaps in resources with substantially more expensive non-federal fire resources. This, (the cost of non-federal FIRE resources) more than any other factor including climate and the increasing Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) has contributed to the skyrocketing costs of wildfire suppression. Continued attacks of the federal workforce will result in more firefighters leaving and exacerbate the unnecessary escalation in wildfire suppression costs.

We hope those in Congress considering such anti-federal employee proposals will accept the challenge and learn something about the federal workforce and most importantly listen to it. It would not be surprising to us that those very same members of Congress attacking the federal workforce couldn’t explain the difference between a GS & WG employee or explain what the initials stand for.

Finally, the letter to the Super committee suggests that federal employees, members of Congress and their staffs “must sacrifice as part of an urgent need to curtail the cost of the federal government and reduce the national debt.” Exactly what are members of Congress sacrificing? Certainly not their pensions & health benefits.

We challenge you to listen to us.

Casey Judd
Executive Director