FEMA makes headlines every year during the hurricane season. Even though we hear a lot about the agency, most people have no idea what FEMA’s job entails.
FEMA officials are the logisticians who compile data and predict when and where future disasters will occur. They are scientist who work with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to do the storm projections. They are first responders who also stay on the ground – sometimes for months or years – to help victims rebuild their lives. They are search and rescue officers who search for survivors and non-survivors in burning cars and flooded homes. They are safety officers who ensure downed power lines do not electrocute survivors and that toxins in flood waters do not infect communities. They are firefighters and police officers who work hand-in-hand with state and local emergency management agencies. They are claims adjusters who work to make victims whole after their homes have been destroyed. They are grant and contract officers who ensure survivors’ needs are met in the aftermath of destruction.
In other words, FEMA is a small agency with a big mission. What’s happening at FEMA affects us all. As the administration and members of Congress are mulling over the 2020 budget, it’s in all of our best interest to protect FEMA’s mission and resources.
Our union is proud to represent FEMA employees across the country. We’re working hard to ensure that the agency has the resources it needs to do its job. Our very own AFGE National Local 4060 President Steve Reeves recently testified at a congressional hearing about how to improve our emergency preparedness and response.
Here are three things that are happening at FEMA that you may not be aware of:
1. FEMA is 1,118 people short.
The last five years have been historically active for FEMA’s disaster response. Our members responded to hundreds of disasters, including recent tornados and hurricanes, and the agency’s staffing is stretched thin. There are 5,000 permanent full-time employees at FEMA, but there are 1,118 vacancies, and the administration is not in a hurry to fill these positions. Understaffing means employees are overworked and frequently deployed to disaster zones without adequate recuperation time. Their leave requests are denied. Because of staffing shortages, FEMA also has resorted to deploying staff beyond their experience and capabilities.
2. FEMA’s hiring process is too slow.
To improve emergency preparedness, FEMA needs to be able to hire quickly. Because of staffing shortages, candidates currently wait too long to receive a security clearance to work at FEMA. This backlog of security clearances is a significant obstacle when trying to recruit qualified people. If more permanent, full-time security background investigators were hired to process security clearances at FEMA, more firefighters, police officers, and other emergency personnel would be onboarded by now.
3. FEMA is using temporary workers instead of permanent full-time employees.
A 1988 law allows FEMA to hire temporary workers during national disasters. But instead of using them only for a short period of time as intended by the law, FEMA has used these temps to supplement permanent employees. That means these employees don’t get benefits or Title 5 workplace rights like permanent employees. This is one of the reasons FEMA hasn’t been able to retain employees.
Let’s do something about it
Whether you are a FEMA employee or not, these hard-working workers need our support. Ask your members of Congress to support these two pieces of legislation:
- S. 426 /H.R. 1073 - the Federal Adjustment of Income Rates (FAIR) Act, introduced in the Senate by Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) and in the House by Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.). The bill provides federal employees with a 3.6 percent salary adjustment in 2020.
- S. 464 - Protecting Employees’ Security Clearances Act, introduced by Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.). The bill excuses employees who are financially impacted by a government shutdown from the threat of losing their job.
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