Uninsured and fighting blazes: Welcome to the life of a federal firefighter

June 27, 2012

Right now, wildfires of "epic proportions" are tearing through the Colorado forests.

Thousands of federal firefighters charged with taming the blazes do not have health insurance.

That includes 27-year-old John Lauer. He's a member of a Colorado-based "hotshot" crew, one of the teams of the most skilled federal fighters that gets deployed where fires are the worst. In six years, he has fought fires in Utah, Colorado, Washington, Oregon, South Dakota, Nebraska, Minnesota - "Pretty much every state west of the Mississippi," Lauer says. "Alaska too, once."

Of all the jobs where you might want health insurance, firefighting near certainly ranks near the top of the list. Firefighters spend two-week shifts working 18 hour days in dangerous conditions. Some develop breathing problems due to smoke inhalation.

But many federal firefighters are temporary employees, who only work six months out of the year (although as Lauer describes it, they can often work a full year's worth of hours with the long shifts). Under federal regulations, temporary employees of the Forest Service do not receive benefits. That means no health care and no retirement pension.

"A lot of them are not making a lot," says Bill Dougan, president of the National Federal of Federal Employees. "The only way they can afford insurance is if they have a spouse that might be able to get coverage under an employer. In some places that's not an option."

Dougan's group represents all temporary federal firefighters; he estimates there are about 15,000 to 20,000 of them.

He worked himself as a firefighter for three decades before coming into his current position. He remembers being stationed in Eastern Washington, in the 1970s, and paying for his son's birth out of pocket.

"God forbid there were any outstanding issues," says Dougan. "I don't know how we would have paid for it."

The Affordable Care Act--if survives the Supreme Court Thursday--could help. It would guarantee access to health insurance for a firefighter who, for example, might have bronchitis. Many earn relatively low salaries, about $25,000 to $35,000 per year, meaning they would qualify for subsidies. If the law gets overturned, however, the firefighters stay in the same situation they've been in all along: Working a dangerous job and unable to afford coverage.

Lauer counts himself among the lucky ones on his crew; he has never had any serious health care needs. He skips out on preventive care, like regular check-ups, but hasn't seen much harm. He's looked at buying insurance but says it's too expensive. Annual premiums for an individual policy hover around $2,777 in Colorado.

"It's pretty pricey unless you can buy into a group policy," he says.

The other guys on his crew have not been as lucky. Many are in their late 20s, and starting families. He's a godfather to one of his coworker's son, Rudy, who was born prematurely. He now has $70,000 in outstanding medical bills. Another friend is looking at $40,000 for some specialized tests on his newborn.

"He's my godson, kind of family to me, and it just feels really unfair," Lauer says. "I've seen all the stuff his father does. We're dispatched from 6 a.m. until 10:30 p.m. Then we're sleeping in the dirt. It can make you feel kind of haggard at times."

Lauer has taken some steps to try and change that. Earlier this month he started circulating a petition on Change.org in support of health benefits for firefighters. It has about 112,000 signatures so far.

Here in the District, there's some action too: Dougan's group is drafting legislation that would give the Forest Service the authority to transfer some employees from temporary to permanent. That wouldn't solve all the problems--the transfer would still be at the department's discretion--but Dougan thinks it's a step in the right direction.

The bill would also let temporary employees compete for new permanent positions, often only opened up to those who are already permanent employees. He estimates that extending these benefits would cost about $12 million annually.

"When you look at the total budget, the federal government doesn’t have calculators that round off that," Dougan says.

That legislation is probably a far way off: Dougan's group has not finished drafting the language. It certainly won't come into effect this fire season. That means Lauer and his team will spend another summer fighting blazes without coverage, and keeping their fingers crossed for the best.

"It's one of the things all temporary firefighters talk about," Lauer says of the lack of health coverage. "As soon as you get out there, you become well aware there are no benefits. But you just keep going about your job, and doing what you're being paid to do."

Comments
Show Comments

Get Wonkbook in your inbox

Sign up for our morning economic policy primer.

Most Read Business
Next Story
Ezra Klein · June 27, 2012