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Sherman Says: Questions abound on effect of Obamacare on volunteer firefighters

BUFFALO — One of the most controversial topics to ever hit the volunteer fire service surfaced in the last few months of the year, and it has nothing to do with fire ground tactics, friction loss or blood-borne pathogens.

Could volunteer fire departments be unable to operate, unless Congress or the Obama administration exempts them from the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare?

In the interest of full disclosure, I have been an active volunteer firefighter since 1981.

The United States Department of Labor takes the term “volunteer” literally, but the IRS says volunteer firefighters are technically employees, if they’re on the job more than 30 hours per week, making them subject to Obamacare’s employee-mandate rules, according to published reports.

“Since the Obamacare law doesn’t specifically carve out an exemption for them, fire departments where 50 or more people work – either as volunteers or as employees – are expected to provide health insurance for every one of them,” wrote David Martoski, U.S. political editor of the Daily Mail.

He claims that, in towns with more than one volunteer fire department, all the staffers will likely be lumped together for tax purposes, pushing many municipalities above the 50-worker threshold. The majority of towns in Erie County fall into that category.

If this is true, it could cost departments hundreds of thousands of dollars, each year. Those that dump their volunteers into the federal insurance exchanges would still have to pay an annual $2,000 fine for each “employee,” after the first 30.

“I can tell you right now, we can’t afford it,” said Chief Edward Mann of the East Derry, Pa. Fire Company. “While a volunteer fire department may not have a payroll, the rest of it isn’t free. The only part that is free is the labor.”

Mann is also the state fire commissioner in Pennsylvania, where 97 percent of fire departments are fully or mostly staffed by volunteers. That’s the highest percentage in the U.S.

Nationally, the Federal Emergency Management Agency reported that volunteer fire departments make up 71 percent of America’s 1 million firehouses.

It’s unclear how many of those departments involve at least 50 people, making the potential impact of the Affordable Care Act’s latest unintended consequence difficult to calculate. The International Association of Fire Chiefs has asked the Internal Revenue Service to let all volunteer departments off the hook.

“If the IRS classifies volunteer firefighters and emergency medical personnel as employees, in their final rule, fire departments may be unintentionally forced to comply with requirements that could force them to curtail their emergency response activities or close entirely,” the organization said, in a statement.

A U.S. Treasury Department spokesperson stated that the agency has “received a number of comments concerning volunteer firefighters and other volunteers, in response to proposed regulations issued last December.”

The complex program known as Obamacare has raised more questions than it has answered. It does, however, remain the law of the land.

Additionally, it is unclear how a volunteer’s time would be calculated, to see if he or she is working at least 30 hours. Many would suggest that, as long as the firefighter’s pager is in the “on” position, the person is available to “work.” Those of us who hold administrative positions attend monthly meetings, but also perform some of our duties at home, such as typing the official minutes of these meetings.

Time is also dedicated to planning community events and company banquets and performing routine vehicle maintenance. Equipment used at an emergency medical call may have to be retrieved at a hospital and returned to service.

Being a volunteer firefighter in 2014 is not about having an “on” and “off” switch. A convenient time for one person’s tasks may not coincide with that of another, but somehow, the jobs get done. It is unrealistic to think there is much time when we are not serving, in one voluntary capacity or another.

I ask our regional and state fire service organizations to push immediately for clarification of the law and find a final solution that does not cost volunteer departments a cent.

David F. Sherman is managing editor of Bee Group Newspapers and a columnist for the Weekly Independent Newspapers of Western New York, a group of community newspapers with a combined circulation of 286,500 readers. Opinions expressed here are those of the author. He can be reached at dsherman@beenews.com.


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