Pennsylvania Volunteers Seeking to Unionize

Today’s burning question: Me and my buddies are volunteer firefighters… sort of. We get paid a stipend for volunteering. I suppose that makes us paid volunteers if there is such a thing. So anyway, we want to form a union but the borough claims that because we are volunteers we are not employees and thus we cannot form a union. How can they pay us and say we are volunteers?

Answer: I suppose that depends on how you define a “volunteer.”

That will be the central issue in a case now before the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board over whether firefighters in the Borough of Emmaus are paid employees or nominally compensated volunteers.

Last October, the Pennsylvania Professional Fire Fighter Association filed a union certification petition with the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board seeking to have all full-time and part-time Emmaus-based firefighters "including the deputy chief" declared to be a single bargaining unit.

State collective bargain laws allow “firemen employed by a political subdivision of the Commonwealth… the right to bargain collectively with their public employers concerning the terms and conditions of their employment, including compensation, hours, working conditions, retirement, pensions and other benefits, and shall have the right to an adjustment or settlement of their grievances or disputes in accordance with the terms of this act.” Police & Firefighter Collective Bargaining Act, often referred to as Act 111.

The firefighters claim their compensation makes them employees. The borough’s position is that the firefighters are volunteers not employees under Act 111, and therefore should be excluded from the bargaining unit.

The proceeding is set for hearing in Harrisburg on January 9, 2014.

Here is more on the story.

By the way… what is a volunteer? Is a volunteer simply someone who volunteers his/her time for no or for nominal compensation? Does it matter if a firefighter has to wear a uniform and work a scheduled shift? Or meets the definition of employee for purposes of OSHA? Or meets the definition of employee for purposes of workers comp? Is compensation the sole determining factor? If so, how much money is enough to trigger “employee” status? Is it hourly… weekly… monthly… yearly???

Or is a volunteer someone who is under no obligation to respond to an alarm (ie. they can essentially respond to an alarm when they chooses to… when they feel like “volunteering”… no mandatory uniforms, no assigned shifts)? What happens when such a volunteer is paid a substantial wage ($20/hour) when they "choose" to respond and are compensated for all trainings plus receive other benefits like pensions and perhaps even health care?

There are departments all over the board functioning in the US. Volunteer fire departments where firefighters are paid for every hour they put in(runs, meetings and trainings), but are under no obligation to respond. There are departments where volunteers work regularly assigned shifts every week, wear uniforms, but receive no pay.

This issue is more that a philosophical question: it backs us into a discussion we have thus far not really touched on: Obamacare and its impact on “volunteer” fire departments who pay their so-called “volunteers”… That will have to await a future posting.

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 45 years of fire service experience and 35 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014, 4th ed. 2022) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.

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