This case was brought by two “volunteer” firefighters. As is typical, the fire district employed a full-time fire chief, lieutenant, and administrator. But in any given schedule there were 13 to 17 “volunteer” firefighters paid $50 flat-rate for a 24-hour shift, $25 flat-rate for a half-shift, and $10 to $15 per hour while responding to calls during their shifts. They also received $10 per hour for training and sometimes a travel stipend. Firefighters filled out an “Application for Employment” and passed a physical. They could work as few shifts as they wanted up to a maximum of four per week. During their shifts, they remained near or at the station, and were subject to discipline. Both of the firefighters who filed the lawsuit were “terminated” for acting in ways the chief felt inappropriate. This may not have been a wise decision, as it landed the fire district in court defending a suit for minimum wage and overtime.
Naturally the fire district argued the firefighters were volunteers, but the court found that the firefighters were “primarily motivated by receiving compensation, which was relatively high among the available jobs in the area at that time.” This ran contrary to the language in the DOL regulations describing volunteers as “individual(s) who perform hours of service for a public agency for civic, charitable, or humanitarian reasons, without promise, expectation or receipt of compensation for services rendered … .” 29 C.F.R. § 553.
While volunteers may be “paid expenses, reasonable benefits, and a nominal fee … for their service without losing their status as volunteers,” the compensation in this case did not seem nominal to the court. It was paid in part on an hourly basis, tied to productivity, and did not merely reimburse the firefighters for sacrifices in volunteering, such as traveling great distances or being available around-the-clock for fire calls. The firefighters also worked up to 3,000 hours per year, many more hours than typical for volunteers. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the pay was comparable to that of full-time firefighters in the area.
Do you have volunteer firefighters? Don’t make the same mistakes Ehrenberg Fire District did. If you have questions, let us know. We may be able to help you lower your risk.