WHITE CITY, Ore. — Representative Greg Walden met with fire chiefs from Jackson County to discuss the classification of volunteer firefighters on Saturday.
The congressman and fire officials were addressing a bill introduced to U.S. House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee back in December. Under the Affordable Care Act, anyone working thirty hours or more a week had to be considered a full-time employee. The IRS has since ruled that emergency responders are exempt from provisions of the Affordable Care Act.
Representative Walden commented on the issue, “Volunteers aren’t looking for that kind of benefit, they want to fight fire, and they want to provide emergency services, on a volunteer basis.”
But there’s still a problem at the state level.
“The State’s trying to treat volunteers as full-time for purposes of retirement benefits, PERS, so the state needs to step up and get this right, before they destroy the very volunteer infrastructure that we have as volunteer fire departments and EMT’s” Walden said.
The U.S Fire Administration classifies nearly ninety percent of Oregon’s fire departments as all or mostly volunteer agencies.
“It’s devastating to either, whether you’re a hundred percent volunteer or combination, if you can’t find a way to nominally compensate, reward, incent or retain volunteers, why are they going to volunteer? Volunteers don’t volunteer to make money, but they don’t volunteer to lose money,” said Kevin Henson with Fire District One in Marion County.
Most fire stations have programs in place that give students preparing to be full-time firefighters the option to volunteer for experience. But, according to Henson, what qualifies as an “intern” at the federal level isn’t clearly defined by the state.
“While the right things are happening, we find out we’re inadvertently in conflict with somebody at the state or the federal level,” Henson explained.