Senate Majority Leader Fred Thomas, R-Hamilton

Senate Majority Leader Fred Thomas, R-Hamilton

The state House Judiciary committee tabled Wednesday a bill opening a three-year window for workers’ compensation benefits to be provided for all Montana volunteer firefighters.

Senate Bill 29 cleared the Senate Jan. 29 but was not referred to a House committee until last week. The bill calls for all volunteer fire departments in Montana to provide workers’ compensation coverage by October 2022. It’s estimated that a quarter of Montana’s 8,000 volunteer firefighters are not covered.

“The need to consider this legislation is that a volunteer fireman has no backup if they’re not covered here,” said bill sponsor and Senate Majority Leader Fred Thomas, R-Stevensville. “There’s no fund, there’s no pool of money, there’s nothing out there that if a volunteer fireman, say a 22-year-old man, was paralyzed falling off a ladder or something protecting your house, there’s nowhere to go to take care of him except if you really had a workers’ compensation policy, in fact.”

Thomas said individual policies cost about $100 to $125 annually, though the bill’s fiscal note names a $130 rate for coverage under the Montana Association of Counties. Chief Nate Curtis of the Sun Prairie Volunteer Fire Department told the committee that helmets cost his department more than workers’ compensation coverage.

Pat Keim of the Baxendale Volunteer Fire Department told the committee he knew of an incident some years ago in which a Jefferson County volunteer firefighter suffered back injuries in a fall and could not work for months. The man’s department, Keim said, did not provide workers’ compensation.

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“Imagine how much differently that could have turned out if that family had had workers’ comp through the fire department there,” Keim said. “Imagine this: Had that department been sued, which they were not, that department would’ve had to liquidate its assets, its station, its equipment, and the people in that fire district would’ve still had to be on the hook for the payments of that lawsuit.”

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Leonard Lundby, legislative vice president of the state Volunteer Firefighters’ Association, called the bill crucial to retention and recruitment, and a bit of “tough love,” conceding that while it isn’t the bill's intent to cause small departments to close, some could.

“What we’re telling … our volunteer departments who have uncovered volunteers, as the sponsor said — we’re giving you three years,” said Lundby, who serves as chief of the Manchester Volunteer Fire Department in Cascade County. “You need to figure this out. And if you can’t figure it out and you’re that poor, maybe it’s time to close the door. Maybe you shouldn’t be providing coverage in that community.”

All committee Republicans but one supported the motion by Rep. Derek Skees, R-Kalispell, to table the bill after a hearing in which no opponents approached the podium. Rep. Theresa Manzella, R-Hamilton, crossed party lines to join the committee’s eight Democrats in opposing the motion, which succeeded 10-9.

“That three-year window being able to give them an opportunity to find ways to make this work, that just means to me it’s an opportunity to find another tax increase,” said Rep. Casey Knudsen, R-Malta, himself a volunteer firefighter. “That’s all that means to me.”

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