Volunteer fire departments all across the U.S. could find themselves out of money and unable to operate unless Congress or the Obama Administration exempts them from the Affordable Care Act.
‘I thought the kinks were worked out of Obamacare at the first of the month, Central Florida volunteer firefighter Carl Fabrizi told Sunshine State News.
‘Man, oh, man, this could potentially destroy some real good companies in Florida.’
The U.S. 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.
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Firefighters battled a blaze in the aftermath of a Nov. 18 tornado in Washington, Illinois. The cast majority of U.S. firefighters are community volunteers
Wildfires like this August 2013 disaster near Banning, California bring volunteer firefighters out of the woodwork to risk their lives
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 real employees – are expected to provide health insurance for every one of them.
In towns with more than one volunteer fire department, all the staffers will likely be lumped together for tax purposes, pushing many above the 50-worker threshold.
That could cost department of life-savers 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,’ East Derry, Pennsylvania Fire Company Chief Edward Mann told the Patriot-News. ‘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’s concerns are likely to get at least some attention in Washington: He’s also the state fire commissioner in Pennsylvania, where 97 per cent of fire departments are fully or mostly staffed by volunteers. That’s the highest total in the U.S.
Employees? Volunteer firefighters count toward an employer’s worker totals under the Affordable Care Act, since the law doesn’t carve out a exception for them
‘A public safety disaster’: Volunteer fire departments could close down unless the government exempts them from Obamacare
Nationally, the Federal Emergency Management Agency reports that volunteer fire departments make up 71 per cent of America’s 1 million firehouses. Another 16 per cent are ‘mostly volunteer.’
It’s unclear how many of those department involve at least 50 people, making the potential impact of the Affordable Care Act’s latest unintended consequence difficult to calculate.
But the International Association of Fire Chiefs has asked the Internal Revenue Service to let all volunteer departments off the hook; the federal government has taken no action so far.
Firefighters in Buchanan, Wisconsin are mostly volunteers. They fought this house fire and put it out without a single injury
‘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 said in a statement that the agency has ‘received a number of comments concerning volunteer firefighters and other volunteers in response to proposed regulations issued last December.’
‘We are taking those comments into account as we work toward issuing final regulations on the employer-responsibility provision’ of the Affordable Care Act, the spokesman said.
But Bill White, a volunteer firefighter for 50 years and leader of the Dive Rescue Specialists in Scott Township, Pennsylvania, said an IRS rule that officially makes volunteers subject to Obamacare employer mandates would be a disaster.
‘We’re barely paying the bills that we have now,’ he told the Scranton Times-Tribune
Pennsylvania Republican Rep. Lou Barletta fired off a letter to the IRS last week.
‘Obamacare has raised more questions than it has answered,’ Barletta said in a statement.
‘First, are volunteer firefighters considered employees and therefore subject to the employer mandate under Obamacare? And second, how should volunteer time be counted to see if they’re working 30 hours?’
Aftermath: On Dec. 4 a home in London Township, Mich. was reduced to cinders — and volunteers kept the blaze from spreading to forests or other houses
Even big municipalities like Jersey City, New Jersey need volunteer firefighters. This November 27 fire destroyed a downtown store and damaged three others
‘Does it mean when a volunteer is wearing a beeper or carrying a fire department cell phone? Does it include downtime at the station house? Listening to a scanner?’
‘If Obamacare is the law of the land, then so is the law of unintended consequences,’ he said, ‘and there seems to be a lot of that going around these days. Just like the flu.’
New York Republican Rep. Chris Collins had his own evaluation of the rule for the IRS, writing in a letter to Acting Commissioner Danny Werfel that it will produce ‘a public safety disaster.’