FEMA Reservist workforce morale 'at bottom'

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Federal Emergency Management Agency on-call workers who applied to stay on call as the agency undergoes a worker deployment overhaul won't know until the first week of September whether they've been retained or not.

In a mid-August email sent to disaster workers, FEMA notified old Disaster Assistance Employees who applied to become part of the new Reservist program that they "should expect a notification of their hiring status the first week of September."

The agency announced (.pdf) in April the deployment program overhaul effort and name change, requiring DAEs to reapply for their jobs as reservists starting on June 15 by June 29. On-call workers can comprise up to 80 percent of the workers in a temporary FEMA field office set up in the wake of a major disaster; they are nonpermanent reservists paid only when actually deployed.

The new terms of employment and overall process has led to criticism among some on-call workers, who among other things say the overhaul is badly timed since much of it occurs during hurricane season. Some also condemn the fact that the period of uncertainty surrounding whether they'll be brought back as reservists is more than a month, while they were given only 2 weeks to reapply for their old jobs.

"There's no guarantee that if we reapply, we get our job back," said one on-call employee, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The new FEMA reservist directive (.pdf) says the agency's goal is to deploy each reservist once a year, but the same directive also defines "activation" to include at-home training.

Hourly rates for jobs have also dropped. DAEs hired into the reservist system based on their existing FEMA qualification rating will receive their old hourly rate, but DAEs hired into a different position and new applicants will receive the new, lower rate. "The morale is gone. It's hit the bottom," the employee added.

The new terms of employment for reservists also require that they be available to deploy within 24 hours except when on a period of preapproved leave, which can total up to 60 days per year. That's different than the old system, under which reservists called into FEMA every 30 days to indicate their availability for the next month.

Some reservists also object to a deployment process that appears to overlook regional or state and local government familiarity by defining cadres as "national level groups." FEMA deploys in support of state governments, meaning that on-call employees are most effective when they have local experience, the reservist says. "Now, because we're nationalized, you could end up just anywhere. We've lost that proximity to the states and regions," the employee said.

Although regional-level management of reservists has been variable, and in some cases problematic, some reservists say they object to moving cadre management to headquarters in Washington, D.C. "If the regions could not handle individual cadres of 150 or 200 efficiently enough to retain control, how is lumping thousands into one central, distant location, completely removed from state and local client interaction, going to do a better job of it?" asked one reservist.

"Headquarters is a black hole of dysfunction," he added.

For more:
- download the new FEMA reservist directive (.pdf)

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