GREENWOOD TWP- Greenwood Township’s move, several years ago, to pay volunteer fire fighters on an on-call basis, paying a flat rate for attendance at meetings, trainings, and on fire or EMS calls, …
GREENWOOD TWP- Greenwood Township’s move, several years ago, to pay volunteer fire fighters on an on-call basis, paying a flat rate for attendance at meetings, trainings, and on fire or EMS calls, means that the township will now have to meet minimum wage law requirements.
According to a memo sent by township attorney Mike Couri, “while the department may have at one time been a volunteer department, once the township started paying firefighters and emergency responders, the volunteers effectively became employees.”
The result of this move, said Couri, is that as employees, they are now subject to minimum wage laws, and need to meet a complex mix of both state and federal wage requirements.
Couri noted that the township’s current practice of paying per event means that if an event last more than one hour, the pay per hour may fall below the mandated minimum wage.
At Tuesday’s town board meeting, Supervisor Jeff Maus, who is also a member of the fire department, noted that the township had already started taking tax deductions (FICA, Medicare) off of the paid-on-call payments.
“We will need to develop rules for how the hours are recorded,” he noted.
Maus said he had spoken to the Hibbing Fire Department, which just moved to a hourly pay structure, and also contacted some suburban departments for information.
Chairman John Bassing said he had been working with Couri on this issue since August.
“We are moving forward on this,” Bassing said. “We will get there…We just can’t do this as rapidly as you think.”
Maus said there is a bit of confusion among fire department members about why their pay is getting deducted.
Bassing noted he had spoken both with Fire Chief Dave Fazio and Safety Officer Ed Borchardt, explaining the reasons for the change.
Bassing said the township is still waiting for W-4 information from some department members.
Fazio noted that several department members are “disgruntled” about the new policy with payroll deductions.
“This can restrict unemployment benefits,” Fazio said. “I’d hate to lose any volunteers.”
Fazio asked if there are go-arounds to the current, as well as the future, hourly pay system. He wondered if members could opt to have their payments directly put into their PERA or other retirement account, or if members could opt to serve without any pay at all.
Bassing said the township would need to consult their attorney, to make sure any such arrangements would be legal.
“We can’t try to move the peanut under the shell,” Bassing said.
The town board tabled the issue, and will be working on establishing a policy to comply with the law. There was no discussion on possible pay rates.
Assistant chief appointment
The board also took no action on appointing an assistant fire chief. Former assistant, Pat Trancheff, submitted his official resignation from the department effective Aug. 1, 2016. Fazio had previously asked the board to appoint Howard Ankrum to this position. Fire department member Pete Makowski, a former department officer, did submit an application to the position.
The board is still working on finalizing a new personnel policy that will apply to all township employees. The board opted to wait until that policy is finalized, possibly as soon as the January meeting, before making a decision.
The board also accepted, with regret, the resignation of Jan Makowski from the fire department.
The board passed a motion to suspend pay for Safety Officer Ed Borchardt for the months he is not in Greenwood Township.
“Ed is under contract,” Bassing noted. “It is a problem for me to pay someone who is not available to do his job for the contract.”
Fazio noted the township had paid fire department officers in the past who were out of state during the winter.
Supervisor Carmen DeLuca noted that in the past, the officers did not have contracts, so this issue was different.
This issue of whether or not there are liability issues with having the department work with the Lake Vermilion Fire Brigade was again discussed. Couri sent the township a six-page letter outlining possible legal concerns stemming from the fact the fire brigade is not associated with a municipality, which limits liability exposure. The township currently has a memorandum of understanding with the fire brigade, which is a non-profit corporation, and does carry its own liability insurance with a two million limit.
The board took no action on the issue, tabling it for future discussion. They noted that the fire brigade is a good resource, and has some equipment that Greenwood does not, such as a large hovercraft for ice rescues. Many members of the fire brigade are trained fire fighters from other departments.
“This is a huge asset,” said Fazio, who noted that the DNR, USFS, and city of Cook all work with the brigade.
Couri’s letter outlined several ways the township could work with the fire brigade and still limit the township’s legal liability.
DeLuca also asked that board members try to limit calls to the attorney on the same issue. Both Bassing and Maus had spoken with Couri on the fire brigade issue. Maus noted that Couri had brought the issue up with him, when on a phone call on a related fire department issue, and hadn’t let him know that he had already gone over the points with Bassing.
“I’m fine with going through John first,” Maus said.