Hiring freeze raises questions about firefighting

Firefighters battle the 90-acre Rogers Fire five miles west of Aladdin, Wash., in August 2011. USDA photo by David Kosling

Federal workers scrambled this week to interpret how President Donald Trump’s hiring freeze of civilian employees might affect seasonal firefighters and other part-time employees who are crucial to managing public lands around the West.

Trump’s order, issued Monday, stated “no vacant positions existing at noon on January 22, 2017, may be filled and no new positions may be created, except in limited circumstances.”

“The head of any executive department or agency may exempt from the hiring freeze any positions that it deems necessary to meet national security or public safety responsibilities,” the order continued. “In addition, the Director of the Office of Personnel Management may grant exemptions from this freeze where those exemptions are otherwise necessary.”

National Federation of Federal Employees Council President Melissa Baumann said the order left her in the dark about U.S. Forest Service staffing, especially with hiring fairs for permanent firefighting professionals starting next week.

“We all had hard time just trying to get ahold of the executive order itself yesterday,” Baumann said. “We’re waiting to see where the chips fall.”

Baumann said in 2015, the Forest Service hired about 11,000 seasonal workers. At least 6,200 of those were firefighters or had firefighting-related duties. But many were for positions such as logging sale analysts, trail maintenance workers, and forest rangers.

“We are waiting for further clarification and direction from the Office of Personnel Management related to the hiring freeze,” said Jennifer Jones, fire and aviation management spokeswoman for the Forest Service’s Washington Office. “We cannot speculate on the impact of the hiring freeze.”

The Bureau of Land Management is facing the same uncertainty on hiring firefighters and other seasonal help. Idaho Falls BLM spokeswoman Sarah Wheeler said late January is when the agency usually begins to review applications and make job offers to firefighters in eastern Idaho.

BLM also is readying listings for seasonal jobs such as campground maintenance and rangeland monitoring, often filled by college students. In addition, there is uncertainty about whether full-time BLM job offers made before the freeze can still be honored, Wheeler said.

“We don’t have a clue right now,” Wheeler said, calling the situation “fluid.”

“We’re waiting on further instruction on what this means,” she said.

National parks such as Yellowstone and Grand Teton will face the same uncertainty on whether they can hire seasonal rangers and other employees to keep up with record numbers of visitors during the summer.

The hiring freeze is scheduled to last 90 days, until the Office of Management and Budget comes up with a more detailed plan for shrinking the federal workforce over the long-term. The OMB plan is expected to provide additional detail and give agencies more direction on the hiring process.

Trump’s order said “contracting outside the government to circumvent the intent of this memorandum shall not be permitted.” That raised concerns within the Forest Service, where many tasks such as drafting environmental impact statements are handled case-by-case through private contracts.

The Forest Service has struggled to accomplish regular tasks in recent years because of increased demands of firefighting nationwide. In what’s known as “fire-borrowing,” the agency has had to spend more than 50 percent of its total budget on firefighting activity, by raiding budgets for other services. It has reduced its non-fire personnel by 39 percent between 1998 and 2015, from 18,000 workers to less than 11,000, according to FEDManager.com, a Washington, D.C., news service for federal executives. Firefighting personnel have more than doubled in the same period.

Trump’s order advised department leaders to make “reallocations to meet the highest priority needs and to ensure that essential services are not interrupted and national security is not affected.” That raised questions of whether seasonal firefighters would be considered an increase in federal workforce that would have to be offset by reductions in other areas.

“Is all the attrition going to come from the rest of the workforce?” asked NFFE regional vice president Lisa Wolfe. “We’ve got seasonal people doing things like wildlife, hydrology, recreation, timber, archaeology — pretty much anything, we have a temporary work force there somewhere.”

Post Register reporter Luke Ramseth contributed to this story.