Firefighters claim Bernalillo County shorted them money for wildfire work

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – New Mexico wildland firefighters tell KRQE News 13 they’re not being paid what they’re owed after a recent deployment.

Local union leaders say they’re missing hundreds of dollars, but the county isn’t so sure.

Their work can be grueling, like yard work with flames.

“When they’re called, they drop what they’re doing, they go on a 14-day deployment or it could be more. They’re sleeping in tents, they’re working hard on the fire lines,” explained Albuquerque Area Firefighters Union Vice President Robert Sanchez.

Every year, firefighters from departments across New Mexico volunteer to respond to wildfires across the state and across the country.

“We can employ the local fire departments as long as they’re cross-trained in wildland fire, and send them out on all federal and state incidents and reimburse the cost,” said Bernalillo District Forester Todd Haines.

Haines says, when these firefighters are deployed, they’re paid according to their normal shift, plus overtime for the hours they work on their days off. He says that means footing the bill for 24 and 48-hour shifts.

“This is voluntary through the department, so if they weren’t paid their normal shift, they may hesitate to take the assignment, which would be a problem for us. We can’t have people hesitating going to fires,” said Haines.

Sanchez says that’s the way it’s always been, until now.

“Some of our local firefighters are actually getting shorted on their check,” he said.

Sanchez says two Bernalillo County firefighters sent to the Bonita Fire in northern New Mexico and one deployed to the Highline Fire in Arizona weren’t paid a combined $1,900 for their work.

“I think if this continues to happen, we’re not going to have a wildland firefighting team,” said Albuquerque Area Firefighters Union Vice President Robert Sanchez.

County officials say a recent change in pay structure had them questioning how much of that state reimbursement money they should fork over to the firefighters. Their issue is whether it was legal to pay firefighters for downtime when they are on assignment at a wildfire.

After KRQE News 13 had several conversations with the county this week about this story, the county now says it plans to pay firefighters the missing money.

Bernalillo County officials say the checks are prepared and will be issued Monday.

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