We were asked if a person on a leave of absence from the fire department can earn points for attending online meetings and trainings.
First, we cannot give legal advice, and this post is not intended to be legal advice. If you have a similar question and this blog post is helpful, we suggest sharing it with your attorney and getting his/her counsel before formalizing any course of action.
Before we address this particular question, we think it would be helpful to read a post we wrote about eligibility to participate in LOSAP. You can read that here: https://www.fireflyadmin.com/blog/eligibility-to-participate-in-losap
To summarize that post, it would appear that only active volunteer firefighters who are subject to a call to duty when the department is activated for an alarm are eligible to earn points. In our view, we also believe that matches the spirit and intent of the LOSAP – to recruit, retain, and reward individuals that are trained and responding to emergencies.
The next point to discuss is the purpose of a leave of absence. Being an active volunteer firefighter comes with certain responsibilities and requirements as stipulated in the by-laws or similar document. Simply put, we assume the purpose of requesting a leave of absence is to be temporarily relieved of those responsibilities and requirements. Therefore, someone requesting to be placed on a leave of absence is effectively requesting to remove him/herself from participating in any activities that an active volunteer firefighter is required to participate in.
Looking at it this way, this question then becomes a by-law enforcement issue rather than a LOSAP issue. Again, we are assuming someone applies for a leave of absence because they cannot fulfill all the duties required of an active volunteer firefighter, including training and meetings. So to us, this is an issue of properly enforcing by-laws. At a minimum, the by-laws should be reviewed to determine what a firefighter is permitted to do while on a leave of absence.
Another factor to consider is VFBL coverage, and how a leave of absence impacts coverage. Although many don’t like to think about the possibility of getting hurt, accidents happen and injuries can occur. We are not experts in VFBL coverage, but it is our understanding that individuals on a leave of absence from the fire department are no longer covered by VFBL. For that reason alone, these individuals should not be permitted to participate in any activities during the leave of absence.
With these two points in mind, a question about whether-or-not a volunteer can earn points while on a leave of absence seems almost moot. A volunteer on a leave of absence should not be participating in activities, so therefore points cannot be earned!
But with the advent of online training courses and online department meetings, an individual on leave could conceivably participate in those activities. We can think of a few legitimate scenarios, such as someone on a school leave or someone on an extended medical leave due to a non-line-of-duty injury. These individuals could easily participate in a meeting via zoom. We don't have the expertise in VFBL coverage to know if coverage extends to participating in an online meeting or training. While it would seem that an online meeting/training would have significantly less injury risk than a meeting/training held at the firehouse, the online activity is still a fire department event. You should confirm coverage for online meetings & trainings with your attorney or VFBL carrier.
Ignoring the VFBL issue for now, presumably an individual on a leave of absence as an active volunteer firefighter retains some rights and privileges associated with the social side of membership in a department; however, a social-only member is not eligible to earn points. Again, by extension, it would seem logical that an individual on a leave of absence would not be eligible to earn points for attending a meeting by zoom since the individual is temporarily not an active volunteer firefighter.
Although we would assume a social-only member would not be taking online training courses, it would stand to reason the same logic would apply to an individual on a leave of absence – that person should likely not be allowed to participate in the online training. But that is a policy that must be controlled locally.
If you or your attorney have any questions, comments, or disagreements with our thought process, please share in the comments below! Again, we suggest forwarding this to your legal counsel and VFBL carrier for additional guidance.
The New York State Legislature passed another bill on June 3, 2021 that would amend Article 11-A of the New York State General Municipal Law, provided the bill is signed into law by Governor Cuomo.
This bill is S1210 / A6401 and was first introduced in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic. A second bill was also introduced at that time, which allowed LOSAP sponsors to award up to five (5) points per month during the pandemic. Most readers know this second bill became law in 2020.
Bill S1210 / A6401 was also meant to address the staffing challenge fire departments were facing during the pandemic. Many departments were limiting certain at-risk volunteers from responding to calls. Although this was for the safety of those volunteers, these limitations made it more difficult to earn points under the department responses category. As a reminder, the current statute provides that 25 points are earned by a volunteer that attends a minimum number of the fire department’s total calls for the year. For departments that also have a rescue/ambulance unit, an additional 25 points could be earned for attending a minimum percentage of those calls as well. If a volunteer is restricted from attending some calls, it limits the opportunity to respond to the minimum to earn the 25 points. Additionally, the department responses category is unique from other categories since it is an all-or-nothing category – either a volunteer responds to the minimum number and earns 25 points or does not and earns 0 points.
What makes this bill different from the one that became law is that it is not specifically tied to the COVID-19 pandemic – it is a permanent change to the statute that gives a LOSAP sponsor another option for awarding points for department responses.
Before we give you the text of the new proposed statute, let’s first review the summary and justification for the bill:
The Summary and Justification make it fairly clear that the intent is to allow a sponsor to credit the points for department responses on an individual basis, rather than for the entire department’s number of calls. In the view of the legislators that sponsored the bill, this creates “a more equitable and efficient system.”
Since our expertise is not in fire department operations, we won’t discuss how a specific department operates and if an emergency response protocol is efficient or not. We are certain there are many factors to be considered.
This legislation will be helpful for larger departments that have multiple fire companies that are dispatched individually. The actual point system category in the law is titled “participation in department responses”, but then the chart detailing the percentage requirement references “volunteer fire company.” Since department and company can sometimes be used interchangeably, it wasn’t 100% clear if points should (or could) be broken out by company or tracked for the entire department. This new legislation would make it clear that a LOSAP sponsor could calculate the minimum percentage based on each company’s number of responses.
Another scenario where this could be helpful is for departments that respond to a lot of automatic alarms that don’t require the entire department to be activated. Many departments call these “chief’s investigations” or something similar because they do not activate the entire membership, but rather dispatch a chief to investigate the automatic alarm. If the chief determines that the situation requires the activation of the full department, then that step is taken. Even under the current construct of the law, we believe an argument could be made to exclude chief’s investigations as a “department response” since the entire department wasn’t activated. However, this new legislation would appear to make it clear that this can be done. (A second discussion about how to award the individuals performing the chief’s investigations with points is a topic for another time.)
In general, we question whether this new system will actually be more equitable and if it really will create efficiencies in the recordkeeping process.
For a typical department where all active members (regardless of fire company membership) are dispatched for an alarm, the ability to create sub-groups or to assign certain calls to certain volunteers could create inequity and administrative complexities – the opposite of the stated intent of the new law. An obvious example is when chiefs are responsible for responding to all calls, whereas the fire police are only needed for a fraction of the calls. Whatever that fraction is, members of the fire police will be able to earn the same 25 points as the chiefs by responding to fewer calls.
Under the existing point system rules, every active volunteer firefighter of the fire department is expected to respond to the same number of calls in order to earn the same number of points (i.e., 25). The same for the other event-based categories: each firefighter receives the same number of points based on the specific event (points for officers being the one variant). This new statute would allow some firefighters to earn 25 points for responding to fewer calls than others. This seems contrary to the spirit of the rest of the point system.
There would be further complications about how to handle people changing groups mid-year, or even joining or resigning from the fire department mid-year. We can easily see this resulting in an individual-by-individual call requirement to earn the 25 points, as seems to be indicated in the Summary and Justification. This would likely be an administrative challenge for any department – large or small.
If adopted into law, this change to how points are awarded for department responses would be optional. Great care should be taken before implementing it, and the LOSAP sponsor should review it with its legal counsel and LOSAP administrator.
The full text of the new law is below. If you have thoughts or comments, please share for everyone to read!
In researching an issue this week, we stumbled across an article titled, The Anatomy of a Lump-Sum Conversion, written by Corey Swarner, CPC, MBA of Milliman.
In various posts, we've attempted to provide readers with an understanding of how actuarial math including the time-value of money, and actuarial concepts such as life expectancy. But we think Corey really nailed it, and wanted to share his article, which you can read here:
We this this article nicely describes how an actuary calculates an actuarial present value, which is used for lump-sum distributions as well as determining contributions and a defined benefit plan funded ratio. Enjoy!
Bill S 101-A / A 2339-A was passed by the Assembly on May 24, 2021. This bill has now been passed by both the Senate and the Assembly, and now awaits the Governor's signature.
If the Governor signs this bill into law, the maximum years of service credit that can be earned in a volunteer firefighter LOSAP here in New York State will be increased from 40 to 50 years. Since plans could have been adopted as early as 1990, including the 5-year buyback there are some participants that may be earning their 37th year of service in 2021.
For a sponsor to amend its LOSAP, it must adopt a resolution to amend the plan and then have that amendment approved by mandatory referendum (i.e., public vote). The statute stipulates that the sponsor does not have to increase to the full 50 years, but could increase it in increments.
For a Fire District that would like to hold this referendum on December 14, 2021, the timing of when the Governor signs this bill will be critical. The Governor signed the COVID-points bill 21 days after it was passed by both houses. However, the bill to increase the defined contribution plan service award to $1,200 was not signed until November 8th, or about 4.5 months after it was passed by the Legislature. Since the resolution must be adopted roughly 30 days before December 14, 2021, any significant delay in the Governor signing the bill into law could create some timing issues. A District could include provisionary language in the resolution, stating the amendment is contingent on the Governor signing the bill into law. Please contact your attorney for guidance on this.
When (hopefully) the Governor signs the bill into law, we'll post another update.
In 2020, the bill to allow
At the end of March, we alerted readers to a bill that would amend Sections 218 and 219 of the New York State General Municipal Law to increase the maximum years of service credit that can be earned by a participant from 40 to 50 years. You can read that post here.
The bill is S1091A in the Senate and A2239A in the Assembly. On April 28, 2021, the Senate approved its version of the bill. It was then delivered to the Assembly and referred to the Local Government Committee.
Given the activity on these bills, including recent amendments to them, we believe it is very likely that that the Assembly will also pass its version of the bill, paving the way for it to be delivered to the Governor for signature into law.
The bill would specifically allow a LOSAP sponsor to extend the maximum years of service credit for up to an additional ten years (i.e., from 40 to 50 years). Additionally, it stipulates that a sponsor could implement that extension in increments or all at once. Finally, the bill clarifies that to amend the program, the sponsor must adopt a resolution and then seek voter approval through a mandatory referendum.
The cost impact of increasing the maximum years of service credit will depend on the type of program (DB or DC) and, for DB plans, the actuarial methodology used to determine the contributions.
For a defined contribution (DC) plan, there is no immediate cost increase as a result of allowing participants to earn the additional ten years. Instead, the sponsor is simply extending the current cost of the program. Another way to think about it is that the sponsor is postponing a potential cost savings, since costs would decrease once participants reached the maximum years of service credit and could no longer earn a contribution.
For a defined benefit (DB) plan, if the actuary is using a funding method that projects benefits into the future, then there could be an immediate cost increase for extending the service cap. If the actuary is not using a projection method, then there likely will be no immediate cost increase. Similar to the DC plan, the sponsor is instead extending the current cost for another ten years. We suggest contacting your actuary for more details.
As we follow the progress of these bills, we will post updates here.