The United States Forest Service (USFS) is thinning its employee ranks, firing 80 vehicle mechanics statewide – including three who work in the Los Padres National Forest in Santa Barbara County. However, employees on the chopping block don’t plan to go down without a fight.
An internal USFS study, released Jan. 7, concluded it would be cheaper to hire outside contractors to perform the duties of current employees in the vehicle fleet maintenance divisions of the state’s 18 national forests. USFS regional press officer Matt Mathes said the fired employees will not be abandoned by the forest service, which plans to use a six-month transition period to help the workers decide what to do after they are let go.
“In order to compete with the private sector, we need to design a smaller operation,” Mathes said. “We’re very concerned about the employees. We’re going to work with each person on an individual basis.”
He said it is uncertain where the mechanics will be able to find work, but he said possibilities include other branches of the California government, other states, or maybe even the same positions they are being fired from – if they are rehired by whichever company wins the outsourcing contract.
Joe Duran, vice president of United Auto Workers union Local 2023 and one of the workers whose job is in jeopardy, said the mechanics are going to appeal the decision to contract out their work. The fired employees have 10 days from the announcement of their termination to submit the appeal, which Duran said will contain allegations that the cost-efficiency study was incorrect in its analysis.
“[The fired workers] are saying there’s a big discrepancy,” Duran said. “They are dead serious about fighting for their livelihood and their families.”
Kathy Good, public affairs officer for Los Padres National Forest, said that while the news did not come as a major surprise, it was still traumatic for the workers.
“I don’t think anyone was shocked. I think all the employees whose positions were under scrutiny were looking at the possible outcomes [of the study] well in advance,” Good said. “It’s understandably upsetting for these people.”
According to an USFS statement, the “competitive sourcing” study focused on the road maintenance and vehicle fleet maintenance divisions in each of the state’s national forests and was part of a larger effort to make the Forest Service more cost-effective.
It was determined that the entire fleet maintenance operation will be taken over by private contractor Serco Management Services, while the road maintenance workforce of 139 people will be left intact except for some minor changes.
The mechanics are currently responsible for keeping the Forest Service’s fleet of 250 vehicles – about half of which are used to fight fires – in service and running well. Duran said he fears the changes may hurt the Forest Service’s effectiveness because the current mechanics are all very experienced, some having worked for the Forest Service for as many as 15 years.
If an outside company is brought in to fill the positions, Duran said the replacement workers might not be as familiar with the vehicles, which puts their proper operation in jeopardy.
“Changing the way our organization operates may seriously affect our ability to fight fires,” Duran said.
Good said a similar competitive sourcing study of the information technology division of the Forest Service in California is currently being conducted, the results of which will be announced within a few months.