New policy pits seasonals against parks

 

ZION NATIONAL PARK, Utah - Michael Parshall wondered how much longer he'd be able to build trails for the National Park Service. His problem wasn't with his job at Zion National Park, but with an advanced and crippling case of colitis.

"I knew that I was getting sick in 1989, but I didn't go to the doctors because I couldn't afford it," he says.

By the time Parshall sought medical attention, half his colon had been destroyed. Recently, a doctor told him that the drug he's been taking to fight the disease is literally melting his bones. Lifting the heavy stones that line Zion's trails could now shatter his spine.

Parshall, who had worked as a seasonal maintenance employee at the park for five years, faced a difficult choice: immediate surgery, or $4,000 annual medical fees for the rest of his life. Unfortunately, he couldn't afford either. Like all Park Service seasonals, Parshall received no health benefits - or any other benefits, for that matter.

Help, however, may be on the way for the tens of thousands of seasonal federal employees like Mike Parshall. The James Hudson Temporary Benefits Bill, H.R. 2648, currently before Congress, could grant some seasonals the benefits they need. Named for the uninsured Lincoln National Memorial staffer whose on-the-job death last year sparked national attention, the bill would provide temporary employees with benefits after two years of service (temporary positions are jobs lasting under six months every year). The bill's sponsors, Rep. Frank McCloskey, D-Ind., and Eleanor Holmes-Norton, D-D.C., expect the legislation to pass some time this year.

But the wheels of change are already in motion down at the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), the government's central hiring agency. OPM plans to adopt a number of hiring standards based on the changes proposed in H.R. 2648. To address those staffers not covered by the bill, the agency also wants to give permanent status to employees working six months or longer every year. These staffers would have a built-in, several-month furlough, much like schoolteachers, and receive full benefits. OPM hopes to have the new standards in place by September. The changes will affect all federal agencies using seasonal staffers. The Bureau of Land Management fills some 25 percent of its positions with temporary employees, the U.S. Forest Service almost half. But most of these positions - such as fire-fighters and trail crews - last less than six months.

The Park Service fills some 10,000 of its 25,000 jobs with temporary positions. In the warmer "sunbelt" parks, many of these jobs last longer than six months a year and would need to be converted to permanent positions under the new policy.

There is a catch. The cost of changing seasonal positions to permanent positions with benefits could run as high as $6,000 per position. So far, Congress has not provided additional funds to cover these costs. Money for the conversion would have to come out of already overstretched park budgets. That could mean cuts in services and on-the-ground jobs like the one held by Mike Parshall.

"We've pressed for these benefits," says Bill Halainen of the Association of National Park Rangers. "Now we're seeing the light of day, but with steps that may end up hurting our rangers."

Zion National Park, which is visited by 3 million people a year and employs numerous seasonal employees over a seven-to-eight-month season, may be one of the hardest hit. Park Superintendent Don Falvey says he is considering closing both of the park's heavily used campgrounds and halting a number of ranger programs next year.

"The reality of all this will hit when we start realizing that things are getting trashed on the resource level," says Assistant Chief Naturalist Rick Fedorchak. "People we should be talking to will be running rampant out there."

Frank Deckert, superintendent at New Mexico's Carlsbad Caverns National Park, sees a similar sacrifice looming. "We'll be down to bare bones here," he says, especially on things like the park's educational programs. Deckert says the OPM has ignored the needs of the parks in developing the new hiring regulations.

Meanwhile, Michael Parshall's fortunes have looked up - not because of Park Service benefits, however. Because he is a Vietnam-era veteran, he's receiving aid through the Veterans' Administration.

For more information, contact OPM Office of Communications, 1900 E St., NW, Room 5F12, Washington, DC 20415-0001 (202/606-1800).

Zaz Hollander has worked as a seasonal Park Service employee in Zion National Park. She free-lances from Portland, Oregon.

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