OLYMPIA, Wash. - When members of the Washington National Guard are called to assist crews fighting growing wildfires across our state, they don the same uniform as fellow firefighters. They've been trained and certified to fight on the front lines. And they stand side-by-side with professionals from other state agencies to ensure our communities remain safe.
Yet members of the Washington National Guard are often paid less -- sometimes even less than the state's minimum wage -- than others who perform the same grueling and dangerous work.
Rep. Mari Leavitt and a group of state representatives from across Washington are pushing to change that with House Bill 1137. If approved, the legislation would ensure Washington National Guard Soldiers and Airmen are paid fairly while performing firefighting duties, and no less than minimum wage during other state activations.
On Jan. 23, 2019, Maj. Gen. Bret Daugherty, the adjutant general of the Washington National Guard and Scott Humphrey, Vice President, National Guard Association of Washington testified during a public hearing in the House Committee on Housing, Community Development & Veterans.
"In 1989 the Legislature agreed to pay lower-level Guardsmen on State Active Duty 1.5 times the federal minimum wage," said Daugherty. "Back then the state minimum wage was $3.85. The federal minimum was $3.80. Today there is a much greater disparity."
Currently the federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour, while the state's minimum wage is $12 an hour. Using the outdated formula established 30 years ago, lower level Guardsmen earn just under $11 an hour while supporting state disaster response. The proposed legislation would set minimum pay for State Active Duty to match either the state's minimum wage or, during fire-fighting missions, the rate established by the National Wildfire Coordinating Group, whichever is greater.
"They are performing state work -- while earning less than the state minimum wage," said Daugherty.
Fighting wildland fires has become a yearly occurrence for the Washington National Guard. In the summers of 2014 and 2015 the Guard responded during the worst wildfire seasons in state history. The governor activated the Guard again in 2017 and 2018 with more than 1,000 members fighting wildfires during the entire month of August.
"Members of the National Guard are regular people, with regular jobs, working to provide for their families," said Leavitt. "When we take them away from those jobs and pay them a lower wage than state minimum wage it hurts them and their families."
Humphrey, representing the members of the National Guard Association of Washington also provided support for the bill.