TRENTON, N.J. (CBSNewYork) — Many firefighters, emergency medical technicians and other volunteer first responders in New Jersey are being told to leave their posts for six months.
It is all because of the way the pension system in the state works. But as CBS2’s Alice Gainer reported exclusively Wednesday, a fix has been drafted in Trenton.
Still, time is running out to make the fix law.
“I’ve always wanted to help people,” said Wayne, New Jersey police Officer Barry Turner, who is also a firefighter. “I’m a third generation volunteer fireman, and now, kids are now the fourth generation.”
Turner can work as both a police officer and a firefighter because he is a volunteer firefighter – responding to calls when he is off the clock.
“If I’m around and available, I go,” Turner said.
After 30 years on the police force, Turner is retiring this March. But he plans to keep volunteering as a firefighter. The problem is the state says he will have to hang up his helmet and quit for a bit.
“I just think it’s ridiculous that in today’s age where we really need people to volunteer for the communities, I’m being forced to leave for 180 days,” Turner said.
The State of New Jersey says Turner technically holds two positions in the Township of Wayne, and “must terminate from both positions in order to qualify for retirement benefits.”
He has to have a six-month separation of service from the town he retires from before he can receive any compensation from the town again – or else he puts his pension in jeopardy.
As a volunteer firefighter, Turner’s pension is not much. But he receives $595 to replace damaged clothing and a $1,350 a year stipend that is put into a tax-deferred account.
“The same people who are schoolteachers, firefighters, who are police officers, who are DPW workers, municipal workers are part of the vital community that are providing the services to our residents on a volunteer basis as well,” he said. “And so now you’re taking out a large chunk of the people.”
State Assemblywoman Holly Schepisi (R-Westwood) said many towns rely heavily on volunteer services. Thus, she introduced a bill two years ago that would get rid of the six-month separation for firefighters.
“Went through committee unanimously; went through the entire senate unanimously,” Schepisi said.
The problem is that the bill has not been put up for a final vote in the assembly. If it is not voted on by this week, it expires.
Only Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D-Secaucus) can bring the bill up for a vote. Schepisi said he assured her it would move forward, but so far, it has not.
On Wednesday, the Packanack Lake firehouse had six calls come in. Losing someone like Turner for 180 days, a fire official there said, “It’s an invaluable asset to have to lose for six months.”
CBS2 contacted Prieto’s office and got no response. If the bill dies, the entire process would have to begin from scratch.
Meantime, volunteers from around the state will be gone.