By Brian C. Rittmeyer
The Tribune-Review, Greensburg
PLUM, Pa. — Plum’s volunteer firefighters were never without insurance protecting them if they were hurt answering a call, the borough’s manager said Wednesday.
Borough Manager Michael Thomas said the borough was late in paying a bill for the annual workers’ compensation insurance covering its four fire departments, but the coverage remained in effect.
He said the payment was missed because of the borough administration’s move to the new municipal center and such mail from the state not being forwarded.
Officials with the Holiday Park, Logans Ferry, Renton and Unity departments took themselves out of service for about six hours Tuesday on the understanding that the coverage had lapsed. During that time, departments from surrounding communities were providing fire protection to Plum through mutual aid agreements.
“If a firefighter had been out and injured, they would have workers comp coverage,” Thomas said. “This whole thing is a Shakespearean play in ‘much ado about nothing.’ It was confusion about terminology between one of my staff members and some people in the fire departments. By the time the whole thing went sideways and caught fire, they already pulled the trigger. It’s just that simple.”
However, Morgan McIlrath, the vice president of Unity Volunteer Fire Department, again on Wednesday said they got a call from the borough stating that the coverage had lapsed due to the policy not being paid.
“All we know is what the borough told us,” she said. “We never would have alarmed the public if there wasn’t a reason to.”
Thomas said Plum gets the workers’ compensation insurance for firefighters through an agent from the State Workers Insurance Fund (SWIF), which is part of the state Department of Labor & Industry. The annual cost for the four volunteer fire departments is about $40,000.
The coverage runs from Jan. 1 through Dec. 31. The borough gets a “front-end loaded bill” in December for $9,000 to $10,000, and pays the balance monthly through the year, he said.
Thomas said SWIF sends the invoice through the mail, and the borough pays it with a check. It is not handled by email or electronically, Thomas said.
That first invoice is normally received and paid in December.
But because the borough had moved its offices and mail from the state is not forwarded, Thomas said, it was sent back to the state, and borough staff didn’t have a bill to process.
Because of the volume of invoices the borough handles, Thomas said it’s not fair to expect that employees would have noticed.
A spokesperson for the Department of Labor & Industry responded to a request for comment Wednesday, but was not able to immediately address the matter.
Thomas said Plum’s insurance agent notified the borough Jan. 4 that the payment was outstanding. A check was prepared that day, council authorized it at its meeting Monday and it was overnighted to the state on Tuesday.
“However, in the interim, because SWIF hadn’t received the payment yet, the term that I guess my staff used with firemen is ‘the policy has lapsed,’ which is technically accurate,” he said. “However, you have 30 days within which to pay the premium. Once paid, any claims back to Jan. 1 are valid and covered.”
Thomas said the borough never told any of the departments that there was no workers’ compensation coverage, and the borough never advised them to go out of service. But word that the coverage had lapsed began spreading through the community anyway.
“On our end, we were not panicked at all,” he said. “We knew this was not a problem.”
To allay fears, Thomas said the borough got a rider policy with another carrier good for 24 hours. He could not say how much it cost.
No injuries were reported between when the payment was due and when it was made, Thomas said.
However, there were at least two calls that fire and rescue crews from other municipalities covered, including the rescue of a woman who fell over a hillside in Logans Ferry.
Thomas said the borough has reached out to state officials about getting SWIF to use electronic payment methods.
“These kind of problems can easily be remedied through technology,” he said.
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