False alarm: First responders exempt from Obamacare employer calculations, Treasury says

Firefighters could do little to save a home along State Road in Dornsife, Pa., early Thursday, Jan. 9, 2014. The home was fully engulfed by flames when they arrived. (Associated Press/The News-Item, Larry Deklinski)January 11, 2014

The Treasury said Friday it will not count “nominally compensated” volunteer firefighters or emergency medical services personnel as full-time employees when the employer mandate tied to Obamacare takes effect next year.

In a blog post, the department said it reviewed the tax code and concluded it would not be reasonable to count first-responder volunteers against the law’s threshold of 50 employees.

The controversial mandate, which defines full-time work as 30 hours a week, penalizes employers with 50 or more employees that do not provide health coverage. In July, the Obama administration delayed the mandate’s implementation by one year from 2014 to 2015, or after the mid-term elections.

The Treasury made its latest decision after accepting feedback from local fire and EMS departments.

“We think this guidance strikes the appropriate balance in the treatment provided to traditional full-time emergency responder employees, bona fide volunteers, and to our Nation’s first responder units, many of which rely heavily on volunteers,” Mark J. Mazur, assistant secretary for tax policy, wrote in the blog post.

Sen. Joe Donnelly, Indiana Democrat, praised the move as a way to maintain local fire departments.

“I am pleased that the Treasury will protect the ability of fire departments across our state to continue to serve,” he said. “It is important that fire departments are able to distinguish between full-time, paid emergency personnel and volunteer personnel so they can keep costs low and services at full capacity.”

Mr. Donnelly and Sen. Susan Collins, Maine Republican, introduced a bill last year that would define a full-time work week as a traditional 40 hours, and not 30 as the health care law prescribes.

Critics of the law say the employer mandate is causing businesses to cut employees’ hours or trim payroll to stay under the 50-employee threshold and avoid fines or the cost of providing health coverage.