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For Many in Forest Service, Benefits Kept Just Out of Reach

Joe Davidson | The Washington Post via YellowBrix

January 06, 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.

But Lawrence Shippen and Susan Forbes are among a number of workers who don’t agree with that.

Shippen looks like Santa Claus but uses language that would make jolly St. Nick blush. At 69, he’s past the retirement age of many, but in no position to join them. The Cedarville, Calif., resident has been with the Forest Service for two decades, mostly as an archeologist at Modoc National Forest, but he’s also worked on trail and fire crews.

“I love the work,” he said. “I just enjoy working with all the bright young people. . . . So I put up with government . . . [expletive].” He added: “It’s really an abuse they are perpetrating on all of the temporaries.”

For those two decades, Shippen has been one of them. He collects unemployment insurance half the year. He’s old enough for Medicare coverage, so he’s better off than other temps. But he’s still in need of the benefits available to most federal workers.

“I’m getting hard of hearing so I should have my ears checked, but I haven’t been able to afford that,” he said. “My teeth are falling apart. That’s costing a lot of money right now. There’s no insurance for that.”

He is missing about a half-dozen teeth, maybe more, he said. “I just have to learn to chew on the ones that are left.”

Shippen knows he doesn’t have many years left to work. “I have no retirement, no pension or anything,” he said. “I probably will keep going as long as I can.”

Forbes is in a better place.

She’s a supervisor at Stanislaus National Forest in northern California, where she is the local president of the National Federation of Federal Employees. Before her present position, she worked for 12 years as a temp.

“I ran programs. I ran wildlife crews. Some years I had 11 people working for me. Does that sound like temporary to you?” she asked. “It doesn’t to me.”

It took Forbes 12 years before she secured a permanent position. During that time, she said, projects were often left unfinished when her hours for the year were up. “It’s a strange way to work,” she said.

At 63, Forbes would be near or at retirement had she not spent 12 years as a temp. Now, she thinks she’ll have to work at least until she’s 70.

“I don’t think I could make it on what I have in there now.”

Though she would be better off had she not missed so many years of benefits, Forbes never stopped loving the job. “The kind of work that we do is an avocation, it’s not just a job,” she said. “. . . It’s an ideal job if you love that kind of work, which most who stick with it do.”

But she hated feeling like a second-class citizen, recalling this workplace saying: “Temporary employees are like Kleenex. They are disposable.”

“Pretty cruel, huh.”

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