Volunteer fire departments, many already struggling to get by on tight budgets, may soon find that they must forgo equipment upgrades and other necessities in order to buy health insurance for their firefighters, depending on how the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) interprets ObamaCare’s employer mandate. The scenario has alarmed fire departments across the nation, which have pleaded with the IRS to treat volunteers as volunteers, not employees. It has also attracted the attention of at least one congressman, who has vowed to introduce legislation exempting volunteer fire companies from the employer mandate if the IRS does not announce that it will interpret the healthcare law in such a fashion.
The employer mandate requires employers with 50 or more full-time employees to offer affordable health insurance to these employees or pay a fine for each employee who instead buys insurance on an exchange. The law defines “full-time” as working 30 or more hours per week.
One might think that volunteer firefighters, by definition, would not be considered employees, and thus their fire companies would be exempt from the employer mandate. In Washington, however, reason seldom prevails. Thus, while the Labor Department considers volunteer firefighters non-employees, the IRS does not. The agency’s website states:
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.
Other details complicate matters even further.
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