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Originally published August 1, 2013 at 8:41 PM | Page modified August 2, 2013 at 6:57 AM

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Forest Service supervisor promotions rile up officers

A recent decision to bump up the pay grade for seven top law-enforcement officials with the U.S. Forest Service has angered federal employees who are coping with hiring freezes, no raises and low morale.

Seattle Times Washington bureau

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WASHINGTON — Ordinarily, seven U.S. Forest Service supervisors getting promotions and pay increases might not raise hackles.

These are not ordinary times for sequestration-pinched federal employees.

Last week, the Forest Service revealed it elevated the jobs of seven of the agency’s top nine law-enforcement managers to level 15, the highest federal pay grade below the senior executive ranks. The reclassification for the managers, called special agents in charge, could boost their base pay by $20,000 or more, to as much as $155,500 a year in the Northwest.

Among Forest Service workers already chafing under budget cuts and hiring freezes, the news about their big bosses stirred inordinate anger.

Matthew Valenta, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees Local 5300, which represents 650 forest law-enforcement workers around the nation, said many union members have been swapping outraged reactions.

“The timing of these raises for top managers is a slap in the face to the officers on the ground,” Valenta said. “They are disgusted.”

The nation’s 2.1 million federal civilian employees, including more than 50,000 in Washington, have not had cost-of-living wage increases for three years. It’s unclear if Congress will extend the freeze to 2014.

A half dozen departments, including the Pentagon and Internal Revenue Service, are furloughing workers without pay because of mandatory budget cuts known as sequestration that went into effect earlier this year. But the Forest Service, which is part of the Department of Agriculture, is not among them.

Still, Valenta, a law-enforcement officer in the Colville National Forest in Eastern Washington, said forest workers are coping with severely low morale. He questioned the decision by David Ferrell, Forest Service’s director of law enforcement and investigations, to pursue the job-grade change last year after the agency’s human-resources office initially ruled against it.

The federal pay scale, known as the “general schedule,” is based on the scope of job responsibilities, not worker performance. Two of the nine forest regions overseen by special agents in charge were elevated to Grade 15 several years ago.

Valenta said the union has received no explanation whether the duties of the seven other law-enforcement chiefs were expanded to warrant a job upgrade.

Among the seven is Barb Severson, the special agent in charge for the Pacific Northwest Region 6, which covers Washington and Oregon. She declined to speak without permission from agency headquarters. Officials in Washington, D.C., did not respond to a request for comment.

But on Friday morning after this article appeared, Larry Chambers, a Forest Service spokesman in Washington, D.C., issued a statement:

“During these tight fiscal times, the Forest Service continues to scrutinize all agency expenditures, including personnel salaries, travel and conference attendance. Each Special Agent in Charge oversees law enforcement on an average of more than 24 million acres, with supervisory responsibility of an average of 46 law enforcement officers.

“This level of responsibility is typically filled at a GS-15 level or higher across the federal government. Three of the seven affected Special Agents in Charge were already at the pay cap and received no raise at all. Those that did receive a raise received raises totaling less than $35,000 combined. Since the raises place them all at (or very near) the pay cap, there are no increased costs going forward and they have no access to ‘faster promotions.’”

The pay range for Grade 14 jobs for Severson’s area is $101,933 to $132,510. The range for Grade 15 is $119,902 to $155,500. Each job grade includes 10 pay steps, and most workers top out on base salaries after 18 years.

Jeff Ruch, executive director for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a Washington, D.C.-based professional association, criticized Ferrell for seeking promotion for his top subordinates when merit raises and bonuses for the rank and file are scarce.

“The whole thing smacks of cronyism,” Ruch said.

John Palguta, who worked as a federal human-resources executive for more than three decades, disagreed. He said Ferrell would have been justified in seeking the higher job grade if the duties for the position warranted it.

Palguta, who is uninvolved in the case, pointed to a 2007 report he said depicted forestlands as a “Wild West” for cops, who increasingly are dealing with not only errant camp fires and unauthorized trails, but assaults, timber thefts, marijuana cultivation and methamphetamine chemical dumping. Special agents in charge oversee the patrol officers and their supervisors.

What would not be appropriate, Palguta said, is if Ferrell had sought to reclassify the agents’ jobs to get around the pay cap and reward them.

“You don’t recognize superior performance by upgrading the job,” said Palguta, vice president for policy with the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit group in Washington, D.C., that focuses on better recruiting and retention of public-sector workers.

Palguta suspects the Forest Service union’s umbrage may be misplaced reaction to federal penny pinching, interagency squabbles over the sequestration and fiscal uncertainty from Congress’s inability to pass spending bills.

All that, Palguta said, “makes employees very irritable.”

Kyung Song: 202-383-6108 or ksong@seattletimes.com

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