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California depends upon its volunteer firefighters. In 2017, almost 9,000 wildfires devastated California communities. Fires consumed more than 1.2 million acres, destroyed at least 10,800 structures, and took 46 lives. It was the volunteers fighting the fire side-by-side with professionals that helped firefighters control the conflagrations and save lives. Sadly, not every volunteer firefighter came away from last year’s aggressive outbreaks unscathed. A common question now on the minds of volunteers and their families is, “Do volunteer firefighters qualify for workers’ comp?”
In general, workers’ compensation insurance only covers employees of the company. In California, all employers must maintain this type of insurance, even if they only employ a single person. If workers suffer injuries or illnesses at work, workers’ compensation insurance kicks in to cover medical bills, lost wages, and disability. While it is mandatory for employers to cover their employees with workers’ comp insurance, covering non-employee volunteers is optional. This means many volunteer workers are at risk of paying for their job-related harms out-of-pocket.
People who volunteer at public agencies are not employees. They are volunteers who may or may not fall under the company’s workers’ compensation insurance, depending on whether or the department paid extra to cover volunteers of the organization. Volunteer firefighters and police officers, however, are exceptions to the rule. In the eyes of California law, firefighters and other emergency service volunteers are employees. Therefore, fire departments’ workers’ compensation insurance will usually cover volunteers’ work-related injuries.
Volunteer firefighters who suffered injuries in the recent California wildfires need to report the incident to authorities within the fire department as soon as possible. Prompt reporting is a requirement for the Division of Workers’ Compensation (DWC) to consider a workers’ request for compensation. If the injury occurred in the line of duty, such as while trying to put a wildfire out, the Division will most likely accept the claim. What happens next depends on the circumstances of the accident.
When a volunteer firefighter pursues damages through the workers’ compensation system, he or she may receive compensation for loss of earnings. Most volunteers don’t receive wages for their work, but they may end up missing time from their day jobs because of injuries sustained while volunteering to fight fires. California laws guarantee volunteer firefighters receive wage loss benefits based on the statewide average weekly wage for workers. In contrast, when an employee files a claim, he or she receives benefits equal to two-thirds of the actual weekly wage.
If for some reason you do not qualify for workers’ compensation as an injured volunteer firefighter in California, seek help from a lawyer. You may be able to bring a personal injury lawsuit against one or more parties in pursuit of compensation instead. The same is true if a loved one died while volunteering to fight fires. A wrongful death lawsuit can often garner your family better compensation than a workers’ compensation claim.
Volunteer firefighters are noble and brave, and they don’t deserve to pay for their work-related injuries out-of-pocket. They are often more at risk of serious injuries compared to professional firefighters, due to lack of training and less protective equipment. Luckily, California workers’ comp will typically cover volunteer firefighters. If not, retain a lawyer for assistance.