WASHINGTON, Dec. 3 -- Rep. Lou Barletta, R-Pa. (11th CD), issued the following news release:
Congressman Lou Barletta, PA-11, has sent a letter to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) seeking an important clarification regarding volunteer firefighters, the answer to which could have dire circumstances for fire companies across Pennsylvania, and therefore public safety. Depending on the answer from the federal tax agency, fire companies across the nation could be forced to choose between swallowing massive cost increases under Obamacare and eliminating volunteer positions. Ninety-seven percent of fire departments in Pennsylvania are either fully or mostly volunteer, which is the fourth-highest level in the nation, according to the 2012 National Fire Department Census conducted by the U.S. Fire Administration and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.http://apps.usfa.fema.gov/census/summary.cfm#f
Currently the IRS treats all firefighters, volunteer or paid, as employees for federal tax purposes. However, treating these volunteers as employees under the Shared Responsibility Provision of Obamacare could result in crushing cost increases for fire companies. Under the health care law, employers with at least 50 employees must provide health insurance to those who work at least 30 hours per week or face a penalty.
"As a former mayor, I know from personal experience how much people count on their volunteer firefighters. And once again Obamacare has raised more questions than it has answered, and this one comes in two parts," Barletta said. "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?"
"Many communities rely exclusively upon volunteer fire departments for fire protection and emergency medical services. In these communities, volunteers may receive nominal incentives and may be assigned to multiple 12- and 24-hour shifts - easily allowing them to work in excess of 30 hours per week," said Chief William Metcalf of the North County Fire Protection District (Fallbrook, CA), president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs, in his own letter to the IRS. "If incorrectly implemented, volunteer fire departments may be unintentionally forced to comply with requirements that could force them to close or curtail their emergency response activities.
"Volunteer firefighters give of themselves to protect their own communities," said Dave Finger, Director of Government Relations for the National Volunteer Fire Council. "There's no question that public safety would suffer if companies were forced to reduce the number of volunteers on hand."
Barletta's letter to the IRS was prompted by inquiries from constituents concerned that the health care law would severely impact fire companies:
"Forcing volunteer fire companies to comply with the Shared Responsibility Provision will not extend health insurance to the uninsured - rather it will close firehouses and place communities at risk," Barletta wrote to Acting IRS Commissioner Daniel Werfel. "Furthermore, subjecting volunteer fire companies to the Shared Responsibility Provision may force them to eliminate volunteers in order to avoid classification as a large employer."
Indeed, it has been the general practice of the IRS to treat all firefighters as employees for federal tax purposes. The agency even specifically addresses that question on its website:http://www.irs.gov/Government-Entities/Federal,-State-&-Local-Governments/Issues-for-Firefighters
"Generally, tax laws apply to firefighters in the same manner as for other types of workers. It does not matter whether firefighters are termed 'volunteers', are considered employees, or are identified by any other name, if the work they do is subject to the will and control of the payer, under the common-law rules, they are employees for Federal tax purposes."
If the IRS regards the volunteers as employees, then the important question would center on the counting of the hours the firefighters are working. A 30-hour work week would trigger Obamacare's penalties.
"How exactly would they total up hours on duty for volunteers?" Barletta said. "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? These are all legitimate questions raised since Obamacare has been forced on Americans."
Depending on the response from the IRS, Barletta may investigate other possible solutions to the problem, including legislation. Barletta favors repealing Obamacare entirely and beginning the process over again, but each attempt at that has been blocked by the Senate.
"If Obamacare is the law of the land, then so is the law of unintended consequences, and there seems to be a lot of that going around these days," Barletta said. "Just like the flu."
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