Firefighters who risked their lives fighting wildfires were paid less than legal minimum by a federal contractor, investigators say

·2 min read
firefighter in the remains of what looks to be a house, all that's left being a chimney and a motorcylcle in the front
A firefighter works through the remains of a burned-out house on September 14, 2020 in Estacada, Oregon.Nathan Howard/Getty Images
  • A federal contractor paid firefighters as little as $2.85/hour, according to the Department of Labor.

  • Workers were wrongly labeled independent contractors and paid a daily rate of up to $250.

  • These same workers fought fires for an average of 70 hours each week.

Workers who risked their lives fighting wildfires were in some cases paid less than the legal minimum by a federal contractor, the US Department of Labor revealed Wednesday, saying an investigation had led to dozens of employees receiving over $150,000 in wages and benefits that were illegally pocketed by the company.

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Since 2010, the Oregon-based company KL Farms/Fire LLC has been awarded 72 federal contracts worth more than $2.6 million, according to government records. But between June 2019 and October 2021, the company did not abide by the rules of those contracts, which required firefighters to be paid no less than $13.60 in combined wages and fringe benefits, such as sick leave, according to federal investigators.

Instead of paying workers the minimum hourly wage required by the federal contract, investigators found that firefighters and others, including those charged with driving fire engines and trucks, were misclassified as independent contractors, depriving them of benefits such as company-provided health insurance, and paid a flat daily rate of between $200 and $250.

On average, per federal investigators, these workers put in an average of 70 hours a week fighting blazes in 2020 and 2021. The company also failed to pay workers on time, according to the Department of Labor.

"Fighting wildfires demands people work long hours and face real dangers as they try to save other people, homes, businesses, and natural resources," Carrie Aguilar, director of the department's Wage and Hour Division in Portland, Oregon, said in a statement. "The workers accepted these risks and deserve to be paid every dollar and fringe benefit they've earned, especially under very specific requirements that KL Farms/Fire agreed to meet."

In total, the Department of Labor said it recovered just over $152,000 in unpaid overtime and fringe benefits for 57 firefighters and truck drivers, with one worker receiving over $14,700. The company also paid a nearly $17,000 fine.

In a statement, KL Farms/Fire LLC said the company had misunderstood its requirements under federal law and a "clerical error" that failed to detail overtime hours and fringe benefits. It said it is now working to help other companies better comply with federal standards "to create a more level field and prevent the headache of dealing with an audit."

Have a news tip? Email this reporter: cdavis@insider.com

May 25, 2023: This story was updated to include comment from KL Farms/Fire LLC.

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