City: Volunteer firefighters’ hours may have to be reduced due to Obamacare

BURLINGTON, Wash. -- An unintended consequence of the Affordable Care Act has volunteer firefighters in the cross-hairs. Fire departments across the state rely on those volunteers, but now there’s a question about whether cities will now have to pony up for their health insurance.

The Burlington Fire Department has nine full-time employees and 30 volunteers on the roster. If the department has to pay for those volunteers’ health insurance, it would eat up nearly half of the yearly budget, Fire Chief David Nielson said Friday.

“Volunteers are very critical to how we do it, but also to what we can achieve,” said Nielson.

He says big changes could be coming for his long list of volunteer firemen if something doesn’t change.

“The Burlington Fire Department cannot operate without volunteers. They’re valuable employees,” said Nielson.

“I think perhaps the Affordable Care Act just didn’t’ take this into consideration,” said Bryan Harrison, the city administrator for Burlington.

The ACA requires employers with 50 or more employees who work more than 30 hours a week to help pay for their health insurance or face a stiff penalty. But are volunteers legally defined as employees?

“There’s a unique definition in state law and IRS codes that deem a volunteer firefighter, you can compensate volunteer firefighters and they still maintain their status. But by IRS rules they’re an employee so the ACA applies,” said Harrison. “We have to monitor, or I believe in our case, restrict the number of shifts they can actually work for us.”

And that means, at best, Nielson has to get creative with volunteer schedules.

“Limiting the number of hours volunteers can work before we’re obligated to pay them health benefits,” said Nielson. “Clearly the city cannot afford to pay all the volunteers in the Fire Department.”

Harrison said the cost would be too high to offer that benefit to all volunteers.

“If we were to extend full medical benefits to those firefighters, it would be $750,000 that the city hadn’t anticipated. And given the entire fire budget is $1.6 million, that’s a substantial portion of the budget,” said Harrison. “I’m not sure where we’d get that money.”

Fire departments across the country that count on volunteers to protect their communities could be in trouble.

The president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs warned the IRS in a letter that the consequences could be devastating.

“Volunteer fire departments may be unintentionally forced to comply with requirements that could force them to close or curtail their emergency response activities,” said William Metcalf.

Meanwhile, Neilson worries he’ll have a harder time filling his volunteer roster if he can only offer people one 24-hour shift a week.

“We will need more volunteers and we will need to make sure they get all the training they need to stay proficient and current with all the standards they need to meet,” Nielson said.

The rules for firefighter volunteers won’t go into effect until 2015, so the city has some time to figure out a good plan.

Harrison is hopeful that the IRS gives them some relief.