Seasonal firefighters, who often work what amounts to a full year during the fire season, aren’t given insurance coverage because they are classified as temporary workers. As a result, they remain unprepared for big medical bills. NBC’s Kristen Dahlgren reports.
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A social media campaign started by a few seasonal firefighters is spreading, well, like wildfire.The issue? Getting frontline firefighters who battle the nation's wildfires -- temporary federal employees because of the seasonal nature of their work -- into the government health care system.
More than 118,000 people have endorsed the idea on change.org through Friday afternoon. The group also has its own Facebook page.
A union official working on behalf of the 8,000 temporary federal firefighters told msnbc.com he had never seen such traction on an issue that's been around for decades.
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"These are employees that time, and civil service reforms, forgot," said Mark Davis, head of the Forest Service Council.
John Lauer and a few colleagues on a federal hotshot fire crew based out of Custer, S.D., started the petition while fighting the massive High Park Fire in Colorado earlier this month.
After a few days they had 1,000 supporters -- not bad, Lauer thought. Then they went five days on the fire lines without a cellphone, and when they got reconnected the number had shot up to 94,000.
"It was pretty wild," Lauer told msnbc.com during his lunch break Friday while deployed to a fire in South Dakota.
"We're not looking for a handout," he was quick to add, "we're just looking for the opportunity to buy into" the health insurance program for full-time federal employees.
"We're working a year's worth of work in six months," he said, given the 18-hour shifts over 14 days, then two days off.
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Crews can make $25,000 over a six-month season with overtime, Davis said, but a firefighter with family can expect to pay $6,300 for health insurance, whereas the federal government's costs come out to $3,300a family.
"It'll help a lot of people, particularly folks with families," he said, adding that he hadn't gotten any criticism for the petition.
"It's a morally unambiguous issue ... given the long hours and the nature of the work," said Lauer, who's also fought fires this year in New Mexico and Wyoming.
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In a statement to msnbc.com, the U.S. Forest Service said "any changes to eligibility would require Congress to change the law."
"We are happy to work with Congress, should they decide to address this issue and its impact on the unique circumstances of forest fires," the agency added. "Under current appropriations, Congress has not provided the resources necessary to provide seasonal employees such benefits."
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The Forest Service Council's Davis has been in touch with the Office of Personnel Management -- which is like the U.S. government's human resources office -- and hopes it can be resolved without an act of Congress.
The online petition "has caught their attention," said Davis, who has also been trying to get seasonal employees into the civil service.
"In my mind, it's an administrative issue" that can be resolved after a process that includes public comments, he said.
Taxpayers would end up helping, Davis acknowledged, but crew attrition rates are now four times greater than other federal employees so lowering that through health care incentives would mean efficiencies in not having to train as many new crews and possibly having fewer accidents.
"Yeah, it's going to cost more," he said, "but you get what you pay for."
Lauer, for his part, might not be back on the fire lines next season to reap any benefit. "I'm going to law school next year," he said.