Native American federal firefighters fighting for boot money
Hundreds of Native American firefighters are locked in a two-year battle with the Bureau of Indian Affairs regarding reimbursements for fire boots required to fight the nation's wildfires.
BIA is the oldest bureau of the Interior Department, providing economic assistance and law enforcement services to about 1.9 million American Indians and Alaska Natives across 55 million acres. Most BIA employees are Native American, as required by federal hiring laws.
The agency employs hundreds of full- and part-time wilderness firefighters who are deployed with other federal agencies to fight blazes nationwide and overseas.
But BIA has failed to respond to a September 2009 federal arbitration ruling that ordered the agency to reimburse firefighters for boots they must purchase as a condition of employment. Some federal firefighting agencies provide at least partial reimbursements, the arbitrator said, citing a previous ruling by the Occupational Safety Health Administration.
Federal requirements for fire-resistant leather firefighter boots that rise above the ankle and last for more than one seven-month fire season range in price from $250 to more than $400 a pair, depending on the brand, according to union officials.
"If you're going to have First Americans be the first responders on wildfires in California or in Colorado, it seems to me that you ought to provide the fire equipment," said Michael Jennings, executive director of the Federation of Indian Service Employees.
Part-time BIA firefighters earn an average of $20,000 to $30,000 per fire season, which amounts to most of their annual income, according to Jennings. Other potential applicants eager to earn BIA's wages cannot afford to pay for the boots without promised reimbursement, he said.
The federal arbitrator ordered BIA and the service employees federation to negotiate the terms of a reimbursement agreement, but talks are deadlocked, according to Richard Hirn, a Washington labor lawyer who represents the federation.
"The only issue here is they don't want to give the Indians the boots," Hirn said. "They lost. They don't like it, and they don't want to do it." Hirn filed a formal complaint with the Labor Department in November, arguing that BIA was endangering its firefighters by not settling the issue.
BIA would not comment on the dispute because of the ongoing negotiations.
"Bureau of Indian Affairs firefighters are committed employees who put their lives on the line to protect the health and safety of people and the integrity of our nation's lands," BIA spokeswoman Nedra Darling said, adding later that "we remain committed to supporting our employees in carrying out their important mission."
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Park Service provide partial payment to employees for boots at management's discretion, the Interior Department said. The Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service consider the boots as a condition of hire and do not pay for fire-protective boots, Interior said.
BIA does provide other protective equipment for free, including fire-retardant pants, shirts and goggles. Some BIA fire chiefs are finding ways to pay for the boots by withdrawing their cost from paychecks, Jennings said.
But the agency's delayed response is frustrating, especially since the federal government is one of the largest employers for Native Americans, Jennings said.
"I'm not seeing any structural changes within the bureau, and that's rather disappointing," he said. "We've still got more male Native Americans in jail than in school. Poverty is on a scale of the Third World. It's embarrassing."
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| October 5, 2010; 1:17 PM ET
Categories: Agencies and Departments, Workplace Issues
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