Somervell County Commissioners Court approved a measure Monday that will add up to annual savings for the county. The extension of the same workers' compensation benefits received by paid county employees to Somervell County Fire Department's volunteer force could also equate to a long-term expense if a claim is filed.
But the unanimous vote approval issued by commissioners at their March 10 meeting also provides peace of mind and recruiting power for the county's largely volunteer force and their families who would receive long-term benefits following response-related death, injury or illness.
The issue of moving the department's existing 40 volunteers – and future crew members - onto the county's existing policy, which is provided by Texas Association of Counties (TAC), was introduced to commissioners at their February meeting.
At that time, the existing defined benefit policy cost the county more than $23,000 per year. Mike Shannon, TAC representative, told commissioners they could save more than $20,000 annually by adding a $2,000 endorsement onto their existing workers' compensation package, extending current county employee coverage to SCFD volunteers.
While the potential savings were attractive to county officials, the issue was tabled for further review following some concern that the move could cost the county more in the long run.
“On the surface, the difference is obvious,” County Judge Mike Ford said. “But it is not just the surface. When talking workers' comp, there is an ongoing expense, whereas the defined benefit is a one-time payment.”?
Under the defined benefit policy, affected volunteers collected a set amount depending upon the extent of the injury. The policy included an accidental death indemnity benefit of $300,000. That same amount was also paid to volunteers who were accidentally dismembered, lost their vision or experienced other similar life-changing injuries or illnesses while on duty. The policy also included a maximum medical expense of $100,000 and plastic surgery and post traumatic stress disorder benefits of $10,000 each, along with various other limited payouts.
Shannon said if county officials opted to stick with the defined policy, they should consider increasing benefit amounts. He said the $100,000 maximum medical expense was simply not enough.
Fire Chief Mark Crawford agreed, saying a stay in a burn unit could eat up that benefit overnight.
Crawford also said recent attempts to recruit additional volunteers could have been more successful if a better benefits package was available. He said a community member who is employed as a professional firefighter outside of the county was almost convinced to serve as a local volunteer while off duty, but the explosion of West Fertilizer Company in the city of West last year led the recruit to reconsider.
“He decided he could not afford to be hurt and not have a job,” Crawford said, adding that the individual's paid employer and family were also opposed to the idea after considering the limited volunteer compensation.
Crawford said in the last 10 years, the department has only filed three or four claims. He said one related to severe injury while the others were minor.
The workers' compensation endorsement includes the same lifetime benefits offered to SCFD's six paid crew members, with payout determined by the volunteers' paid wages at their outside employment.