It all started around a kitchen table in Custer, South Dakota. John Lauer, a 27-year-old seasonal firefighter for an elite U.S. Forest Service wildland fire team, sat down with some colleagues to write a petition.
Lauer is one of thousands of firefighters who spend their summers protecting homes, businesses and forests across the country. Lauer loves the work, but he hated seeing his talented and experienced colleagues leave because the job didn’t offer health insurance.
“It’s a very difficult thing to walk away from this line of work, because you simply can’t afford it,” he says. “You know, you can’t have a family and do this. And, if you do, you’re kinda rolling the dice and hoping nobody gets sick.”
Lauer has seen two firefighters on his crew roll the dice and lose in recent years. Constance Van Kley is married to one of them. When she got pregnant five years ago, she skipped some of her prenatal care because she didn’t want to rack up medical bills. But then their son was born seven weeks early. “By the time he got home, we were about $70,000 in debt,” she says.
When another crew member got hit with huge bills related to his child’s birth again this year, Lauer felt like he had to do something. He and some colleagues started a petition.
They posted it online and then went out to fight fires. Within a couple of months 125,000 people had signed it.
The response grabbed the attention of Rep. Diana DeGette, a Democrat from Denver. She drafted a bill that would give seasonal federal firefighters the same health insurance benefits full-timers at federal land management agencies receive. DeGette says it’s pretty common for seasonal firefighters to put in a whole year’s worth of work in a six-month fire season.
“Some of these firefighters have as many as 850 hours of overtime every fire season,” she says. “And they have so many health risks, because they’re out there on the front lines.”
Just hours after the bill was introduced Tuesday, President Obama took action himself. He ordered federal agencies to start offering seasonal firefighters the same health benefits year-round federal employees get.
The president’s move is “surreal,” Lauer says.
“This has been an issue that’s been out there so long and nothing’s ever happened on it. I think a lot of folks just thought this is the way it’s going to be forever. It’s changing the game for them.”
More than 10,000 seasonal firefighters are on the job this season. The president has not yet offered an estimate of how much it will cost to extend healthcare benefits to them.