Climate Change Has FEMA Working Year-Round, Straining Its Workforce
Once just a few months long, "busy season" now lasts all year. That's hurting the volunteers and reservists who supply much of FEMA's surge capability.
While the head of Federal Emergency Management Agency believes her team is ready for what is expected to be a particularly trying hurricane season, she is calling on Congress to take one key step to avoid any catastrophic shortfalls.
“I do believe our workforce is prepared,” FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell told a panel of the House Homeland Security Committee on Tuesday, adding her employees are among “the most dedicated you can find anywhere in government.”
She added, however, that climate change has forced FEMA to adopt a year-round readiness posture, rather than concentrating most of its work in a few-month period. That evolution has forced the agency to reevaluate its staffing levels on a macro basis and pushed Criswell to ask for one significant reform from Congress: to provide temporary FEMA employees who leave their day jobs to respond to disasters with the same protections as members of the armed forces deployed to active duty.
The Civilian Reservist Emergency Workforce (CREW) Act (S. 2293) would provide the same protections to FEMA reservists that are currently afforded under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act. Most FEMA employees who respond to a disaster are temporary, on-call staff who work for the agency intermittently as required.
“It is the heartbeat of what we do for disasters,” Criswell said. “It is the majority of our staff that surge in when an incident happens to support local communities.”
The CREW Act, introduced by Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., was unanimously approved in the Senate in December, but has yet to receive a vote in the House.
“These devoted professionals should never have to worry that they could lose their livelihoods when they are called to serve their country,” Peters said when introducing the bill. “This bipartisan bill will help protect our essential disaster response workers, and ensure that FEMA will always be ready to respond with critical personnel when disaster strikes.”
Lawmakers have noted that reservists are only paid while deployed to a disaster and the lack of protections they receive for their full-time jobs makes it difficult for the agency to recruit and retain the temporary personnel. FEMA employs more than 12,000 reservists who have been stretched thin due to not only hurricanes and wildfires, but also FEMA's obligations throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
FEMA has seen some success growing its non-career workforce, adding 5,000 employees over the last five years. Its permanent, full-time workforce has remained steady over that time, however. Current and former officials, stakeholders and employees themselves have raised concerns about insufficient resources given current demands. In the 1960s, for example, the United States declared an average of 18 major disasters per year. The emergency response agency responded to 104 such disasters in 2020 and 58 last year. Its capacity to quickly deploy around the country and handle logistics has also led it to take on various other projects in recent administrations, such as helping with an uptick of migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, the resettling of Afghan evacuees and the COVID-19 pandemic response. Lawmakers and experts have cautioned the increased workload has led to more turnover—and less experience—throughout the agency
FEMA employees previously sounded the alarm on their lack of down time between deployments, warning of burnout as the agency no longer experiences a true offseason. One FEMA reservist recently told Government Executive new hires were receiving insufficient training—just two-to-three days, virtually—before being sent out to disasters. Some employees were working 12-hour days for a month straight, he said. A former reservist who recently left the agency said she and her colleagues were taken for granted, with few people in the agency looking out for reservists' interests. The lack of protections led many people to leave, she said, and the frontline nature of their jobs caused them to be unfairly scapegoated when things went wrong.
“We have to take the punishment,” the former reservist said.
The agency last year sought to bring employees home from pandemic-related assignments to allow them to rest before hurricane season. The recovery period was short-lived, however, as President Biden was quickly forced to once again send out FEMA workers to help states deal with new waves of COVID-19 cases.
Criswell said on Tuesday she is prioritizing the mental health of her workforce and has requested additional funds in the agency’s fiscal 2023 budget to expand those initiatives. She added FEMA officials are in the midst of conducting a comprehensive review of the agency's staffing needs to determine how to better structure the workforce in light of growing demands.