Recently, the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board (PLRB) issued a Final Order indicating that members of a volunteer fire company which provided coverage to a local borough were actually Borough employees. In doing so, both the hearing examiner who issued the Proposed Decision and Order and the Board determined that it did not matter that the firefighters were “appointed” and not “hired” by the borough, and further opined that the relationship of providing services for wages was an element of an employer-employee relationship.
The fire department was a non-profit corporation, with its building and most of its equipment and apparatus owned by the Borough. In 1999, the Borough’s council adopted an ordinance establishing a fire department and officer ranks, providing for vehicles and equipment, and reserving the right for council to establish binding rules, regulations and Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs). The ordinance further indicated that the Borough Council would appoint the officers, require the officers to take the same oath that was required for Borough officials, and allowed the Fire Chief (an employee of the Borough) to issue orders and an SOP manual.
In its review, the Board found that the Borough’s 2012 and 2013 budgets contained a number of line items for the Fire Department (and later included a fire services tax), and further noted that when an expense was incurred, it was paid directly by the Borough. Significantly, volunteers were paid an hourly rate by the Borough, which had the power to set and approve the hourly rates plus incentives for further training. The Board further noted that the Secretary of the Borough ran the day-to-day operations of the department (including scheduling), that the Borough had to authorize any overtime, and that the firefighters submitted time cards and received W-2s from the Borough. Additionally, personnel matters, including disciplinary action, were handled by the Fire Chief. Challenged disciplinary matters could be taken to the Borough Manager.
Based upon the above information, the hearing examiner determined that the officers were actually employees and not volunteers. The Borough did not challenge the findings that it controlled the wages, hours, or working conditions of the firefighters- all considered to be evidence of an employer-employee relationship- but did file exceptions on the basis of the hearing examiner’s finding regarding discipline. Upon review, the Board found that because the Fire Chief, as an employee of the Borough, acted in the interest of his employer, the Borough “exercised control over disciplinary matters.” The Borough made several other arguments, including that the hearing examiner’s findings would mean that the Borough was in violation of civil service and veterans preference laws. However, the Board ultimately found no error in the examiner’s ruling and made the order final.
The order has been appealed to the Commonwealth Court, with support from both the Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors and the Pennsylvania State Association of Boroughs. If the Court agrees with the PLRB, this will have a huge impact on municipalities which rely on the services of volunteer fire companies but may not have the financial ability to absorb these volunteers and the costs that come along with them being declared employees of the municipalities. This is definitely one to watch.