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For many in Forest Service, benefits kept just out of reach

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By Joe Davidson
Wednesday, January 6, 2010

When it comes to providing employee benefits, Uncle Sam strives to be a model employer.

But there's rust on his halo.

Take a look at thousands of Forest Service workers who get no health and retirement benefits, despite years of service to the federal government.

They are temporary employees. It's not uncommon for temps to go without benefits, but these folks are different.

They are hired year after year after year in the same job. Many work for six months, or one hour less than that to be precise, then must find other work or collect unemployment. Meanwhile their projects may come to a halt, waiting for their return, like the spring thaw six months later.

This system allows Sam to avoid fully compensating loyal employees who love their work but detest their working arrangement. If he allowed them to work at least six months a year, they could be classified as seasonal employees, a category that comes with benefits.

Federal regulations say, "consistent with the career nature of the appointments, seasonal employees receive the full benefits authorized to attract and retain a stable workforce. As a result, seasonal employment is appropriate when the work is expected to last at least six months during a calendar year."

But if Sam cuts them off when they reach 1,039 hours (not including overtime), which is just 60 minutes short of the six-month mark, there are no benefits to be had.

Despite the lack of benefits, Hank Kashdan, associate chief of the Forest Service, defends the use of temporary employees.

"The vast majority of our seasonal workforce is really most appropriately fitting in a 1039-type situation," he said.

Particularly in northern areas, there isn't enough work to hire employees year-round, he said. But when there is a need, he added, as with fighting wildfires in California, workers can be converted to career positions under the federal regulations.

"I would say the 1039 is a very appropriate authority for how we are managing our workforce," he said.


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