New law protects jobs of New York's volunteer emergency responders during major disasters

   

Andrew Cuomo
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, left, and Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown survey storm clean-up in the south Buffalo area Nov. 23. Cuomo declared a state of emergency when the storm dumped more than six feet of snow on the area.
(AP Photo | Mike Groll)

Syracuse, N.Y. A new state law bars employers in New York from firing volunteer firefighters and members of volunteer ambulance squads for taking time off from their jobs to respond to major emergencies such as hurricanes and big snowstorms.

The law, approved by the state Legislature this summer and signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo Sept. 23, takes affect Dec. 22. It requires employers to grant a request from a volunteer firefighter or a member of a volunteer ambulance corps for leave to respond to declared states of emergency.

The law does not require employers to pay volunteers during a leave.

States of emergency can be declared by the governor in cases of man-made or natural disasters.

Under mutual aid agreements, volunteer fire departments from areas of the state not affected by a disaster will often send members to areas that are affected to assist with emergency services for a few days. The new law requires employers in such cases to grant a request for a leave of absence for as long as a volunteer is "engaged in the actual performance of his or her duties" at the emergency.

The Firemen's Association of the State of New York, which represents the state's 1,700 volunteer fire departments, has been pushing lawmakers for several years to give volunteers job protections while respond to emergencies. Earlier versions of the bill were vetoed by Gov. David Patterson in 2010 and by Cuomo in 2013 because of concerns expressed by employers, including hospitals, over losing key personnel for extended periods.

Robert Leonard, a spokesman for the association, said the latest version of the bill made it into law because it includes an exception for employers who determine that an employee's absence would impose an undue hardship on their business.

Graig Zappia, a labor law attorney with Tully Rinckey, said hardship cases would likely involve businesses with very small workforces or those that could not operate in the absence of a key employee.

For the law to apply to them, employees must notify their employers ahead of time that they are members of a volunteer fire department or ambulance corps, he said.

"They're protected against job loss as long as they meet that requirement," he said.

About 600, or nearly one-third of the state's 1,700 volunteer fire departments, have sent members to areas of the state hit hard by natural disasters in the past few years, according to the Firemen's Association. They include Hurricane Irene in 2011, Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and the storm that dumped more than six feet of snow on the Buffalo area last month.

There have been only a handful of cases of employers in New York firing volunteer firefighters or ambulance squad members for leaving their jobs to respond to emergencies. Most employers willingly approve of the leaves.

However, Ken Pienkowski, first vice president of the Firemen's Association and a former chief of the Taunton Volunteer Fire Department in Onondaga County, said the association lobbied for the new law because the lack of job protections made some volunteers reluctant to ask for leaves.

"There was a fear because there was no job security when they returned," he said.
By Rick Moriarty | syracuse.com

   

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