REDDING, Calif. — The volunteer fire companies that protect farms and ranches in many areas in the West could suddenly face skyrocketing expenses under the new health care law unless Congress or the federal government exempts them, firefighters’ groups say.
Because of mileage, per diem and other stipends often given to volunteer firefighters, the Internal Revenue Service counts them as employees if they’re on the job more than 30 hours a week.
So if a station’s employees and volunteers add up to 50 or more, the company could face penalties starting in 2015 if it does not offer everyone health insurance benefits, explains the National Volunteer Fire Council.
Many of the stations are in rural areas surrounded by valuable farmland or timberland, and many of their volunteers are farmers and ranchers themselves, said Dave Finger, the fire council’s director of government relations.
“That’s another thing about this issue – volunteer firefighters have full-time jobs outside of the fire service, and a lot of those jobs provide health insurance,” Finger said. “We’re not talking about a number of people who aren’t insured.”
Companion bills exempting volunteer firefighters have been introduced by Rep. Lou Barletta, R-Pa., and Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va. Barletta introduced his bill after both he and the fire council sent letters seeking clarification from the IRS and received no response, said Tim Murtaugh, the congressman’s spokesman.
“The Internal Revenue Service could clear all this up in a moment by saying no, volunteer firefighters are not considered employees,” Murtaugh said. “That’s all it would take.”
The IRS did not respond to a call and email from the Capital Press seeking comment. A Treasury Department spokesman told London’s Daily Mail the agency is taking concerns about volunteer firefighters “into account as we work toward issuing final regulations on the employer-responsibility provision” of the Affordable Care Act.
If volunteers are counted as employees in the final rule, many fire departments could be forced to curtail their emergency response activities or close entirely, asserted the International Association of Fire Chiefs.
“I think if it came to it, you could see agencies stopping at 49” to avoid triggering the law, Finger said. “Limiting volunteer hours is another thing, or eliminating benefit programs.”
In Northern California’s Shasta County, more than two dozen fire departments protect a vast rural expanse that includes valuable timberland and rangeland. The county’s roughly 200 volunteer firefighters don’t reach the 30-hour-a-week threshold, but how federal agencies treat volunteers is significant because many of the county’s departments use them, principal administrative analyst Julie Hope said.
With 10 employees and 17 volunteers, the Shasta Lake Fire Protection District is too small to fall under the provisions of the law. But that doesn’t stop chief Adrian Rogers from worrying.
“It always worries me, especially if they don’t see anybody as a volunteer,” he said. “This is just one more thing. With all the other federal requirements, it’s one more thing on the pile to get rid of volunteer firefighters in this nation. It’s hard to get volunteers now as it is with all the training required.”
National Volunteer Fire Council: http://www.nvfc.org
International Association of Fire Chiefs: http://www.iafc.org