Federal Firefighters Fight Policy That Stymies Their Advancement

By Joe Davidson | Columnist April 18 ?   

Come May, Craig Utter will begin his 11th season of his dangerous, dirty job fighting wildland fires with the U.S. Forest Service.

He goes to places so remote, he needs a helicopter to get there. “There” is all over the country. “Last summer I was in California for two weeks, home for two days, then to Missoula for a week, home for a week and then to Alaska for two weeks, home for three weeks then to North Carolina for a week and then Texas for a week and then back to Idaho,” said Utter, who lives in McCall, Idaho.

This isn’t the ideal gig for most people, but it gives the 46-year-old Utter a “sense of service to your community and country.”

Now it’s time for his country to help Utter and other workers like him by opening opportunities to advance.

Despite having worked over an 11-year span for the government, Utter is considered a temp — a full time temporary or seasonal employee. When he’s working, he’s on the job full time plus, but his base work schedule, not including overtime, is limited to 1,039 hours a year. That’s just shy of six months  of employment at 40 hours a week. Overtime can add anywhere from 200 to 700 additional hours.

The Land Management Workforce Flexibility Act Congress approved last year was intended to help seasonal workers like Utter advance in the federal workforce, by allowing them to compete for permanent gigs just like most feds can.

But intent and implementation are not always the same thing.

The National Federation of Federal Employees (NFFE), which represents Forest Service workers, says regulations to implement the law being considered by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) would seriously undermine congressional intent.

Members of Congress agree.

NFFE President William R. Dougan outlined the issue in an angry letter to President Obama. Dougan said the law “provides long-serving and successful temporary employees with, to quote from the Congressional Record, ‘the same career advancement opportunities available to all other Federal employees.’”  OPM’s guidance to agencies on the law is “inconsistent with legislative history,” Dougan said.

The law’s sponsor, Rep. Gerald Connolly (D-Va.), backs Dougan. Connolly said the guidance is based on OPM’s “narrow reading” of the law. OPM’s interpretation, Connolly said, “would actually limit the positions to which these temporary employees may apply… Of course, the congressional intent was to allow these seasonal employees to compete for vacant, permanent positions just like other federal employees.”

OPM said it “believes its implementing guidance…is consistent” with the law. The agency now is drafting implementing regulations, but Congress isn’t waiting for that.

On Thursday, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee unanimously approved legislation setting OPM straight.

“The intent of our legislation is clear and should be without question…” Connolly said. “Once these clarifications are in place, OPM must move expeditiously towards full implementation.”

Then, Connolly said, the law will “enhance the pool of highly-qualified applicants that compete for permanent positions.”

That speaks to a Forest Service scientist who is eager to advance her federal service, but is stymied by the policies now in place. She is considered temporary, even though she is a 10-year federal employee, working in temporary positions one year at a time.

“I’m exactly the kind of person who should benefit from this legislation,” said the scientist. She didn’t want to be identified because she feared her complaints might bring management reprisals.

Fear of retribution is not uncommon among federal employees, but that’s a topic for another column.

“All I’m seeking is the opportunity to compete for jobs based on the strength of my experience…,” she said. “I have a good job, but I can’t advance.”

The scientist is eager to compete for a particular opening, but she’s waiting to see if it will be posted in a way that will allow a so-called temporary employee to apply.