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Volunteer Firefighters, Medics Enjoy Job Protections

September 11, 2018
 
The ongoing wildfires burning in California raise the question of how Massachusetts law addresses employer interactions with volunteer/call firefighters and ambulance workers.
 
Organized volunteer firefighting dates back more than 275 years when Ben Franklin attempted to organize a volunteer fire brigade in Philadelphia.
 
While large urban areas rely on professionally trained and paid fire departments, some smaller and/or rural communities still rely on volunteer firefighters and ambulance workers. In response to concerns about the employment rights of these volunteers, Massachusetts enacted Chapter 125 of 2012 (now known as section 177B of MGL Ch. 149) to provide volunteer/call firefighters or ambulance staff with legal protections regarding their employment when they are called to respond to an emergency.  
 
The law states: “No employer shall discharge or take any other disciplinary action against any employee by reason of failure of such employee to report for work at the commencement of his regular working hours where such failure is due to his responding to an emergency in his capacity as a volunteer member of a fire department or ambulance department.” 
 
The employer does not need to compensate the volunteer for the work hours missed due to the emergency. The employer may request a statement signed by the chief of the fire department or ambulance department certifying the date and time such employee responded to, and returned from, the emergency. Presumably an employee and employer could reach an agreement about the use of personal or vacation time to enable the employee to be paid for the time away from work. 
 
The statute also provides that the volunteer shall inform his employer or immediate supervisor of the reasons he/she did not report to work.  
 
“Responding to an emergency” means responding to, working at the scene of, or returning from, a fire, rescue, emergency medical service call, hazardous materials incident or natural or man-made disaster in the good-faith belief that the action is necessary to prevent the imminent loss of life or property.
 
“Volunteer member” means a volunteer, call, reserve, or permanent-intermittent firefighter or emergency medical technician, but shall not include any person who received compensation for over nine hundred and seventy-five hours of services rendered in such capacity over the preceding six-month period.
 
Any employee who believes he/she has been harmed under this law has up to one year from the date of the alleged violation to bring a lawsuit seeking to enforce his/her rights in the Superior Court for the county where the alleged violation occurred or where the employer resides or transacts business.
 
If an employer is found to have violated the law, the remedies include immediate reinstatement of the employee to his/her former position without reduction of pay, seniority or other benefits, and payment of any lost pay or other benefits during any period for which such termination or other disciplinary action was in effect. 
 
Nearly all misunderstandings about the actions of a volunteer firefighter or ambulance workers can be easily avoided through communication. Encourage your employees to inform you about any outside activity they are involved with that may impact their ability to work. Once you know about their volunteer activities, you can discuss how to handle paid time off and other possible work schedule issues. 
 
Contact the AIM Employer Hotline at 1-800-470-6277 with questions about HR compliance issues. 
 
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