The disaster assistance employee started her year in the Northeast, living in a hotel room while helping communities there recover from flooding from Hurricane Irene. She then moved south, to work on Hurricane Ike damage, and plans to drive her car up north soon, to assist with Hurricane Sandy.
In between, she also spent $48,000 on a jaw surgery. All of it was out-of-pocket: As a disaster assistance employee with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, she does not qualify for federal health benefits.
“I’ve been through tornadoes I’ve been through ice storms where there are five inches of snow on the power lines and the power goes out,” the FEMA employee says (she asked to remain anonymous, as she fears losing her job if identified. “I worked on Joplin debris for six months. I was exposed to asbestos there daily. There are a lot of hazards being on the ground.”
FEMA has 9,981 disaster assistance employees, according to a Government Accountability Office report released this year. That same report estimated that the reservists make up about 57 percent of the agency’s total workers. As temporary employees of the government, they do not qualify for health benefits.
There are 1,900 FEMA personnel working on Hurricane Sandy. A FEMA spokeswoman did not have data on how many disaster assistance employees have been, or will be, deployed for Hurricane Sandy, nor did they have information on what services they would provide.
Working in disaster assistance isn’t exactly easy. FEMA notes that disaster assistance employees should be able to “pick up and leave home, sometimes with 24 to 48 hours notice” and expect to work long hours, sometimes seven days straight. The employee I spoke with recalls working 16-hour days in Joplin. During Hurricane Katrina, she slept in a storage bunker.
“The hours can be long and the conditions are sometimes difficult,” one FEMA page on the program notes. “But the payoff is the satisfaction of knowing you have brought aid, relief and comfort to those individuals affected by a disaster or an emergency.”
Congress considered legislation back in 2009 that would have changed this situation. Rep. Jim Oberstar (D-Minn.) sponsored the Disaster Response, Recovery, and Mitigation Enhancement Act, which would have allowed disaster assistance employees to enroll in the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program.
At the time, a report conducted by Oberstar's office found FEMA had 9,106 disaster assistance employees. Of those, 770 qualified for federal health benefits due to previously serving as full-time federal employees. The other 8,336 were on their own.
The same report found that disaster assistance employees “generally do not have access to employer-provided health insurance and must carry their own private insurance.”
Oberstar's legislation languished in the Transportation Committee, only accruing 13 co-sponsors by the end of 2010.
A similar situation arose this year over federal firefighters’ lack of access to federal health benefits as they fought “epic” blazes in the west. Since the government categorized the firefighters as seasonal employees, they were not eligible for federal health insurance.
Dena Patrick, a 49-year-old woman in North Carolina, saw how a social media campaign eventually lead to the Obama administration changing its policy on the firefighters. She started a petition on the site Change.org, hoping she could do the same for disaster reservists.
“My friend who works for FEMA, I have witnessed her drop her life at the drop of a hat,” she said. “About a year ago, she mentioned she wasn’t feeling well and wished she had health insurance. I was just appalled.”
The FEMA employee I spoke with said she would leave her job if she could find something with equal pay and health benefits. She did look for a plan on the individual market, but due to a pre-existing condition, the cheapest option she found came with a $1,400 monthly premium and $12,000 deductible.
“I am in my forties and I have never had a mammogram because I can’t afford it,” she says. “I let my health care issues go because I can’t afford to even know if I’m sick.”
Being a disaster responder, with unpredictable hours, makes finding a part-time job for the hours she’s not working especially tough.
She recalls watching President Obama’s address to hurricane survivors Wednesday in New Jersey. He talked about how Americans go through “tough times” but then they bounce back after looking to one another.
“My response to that was, you’re asking employees to be out on the front lines of this disaster, expecting us to take care of their needs,” she remembers. “We’re supposed to bring a sense of normalcy. What is the president doing to take care of us?”