Ruling raises tax concern about volunteer benefits


State lawmakers are trying to rework state law to allow nonprofit groups to offer their volunteers benefits such as free season passes at ski areas.

A state agency and the Oregon Court of Appeals have found that the passes the Mount Bachelor Sports Education Foundation gave volunteers for setting up gates and logging times at ski races amount to a wage, which means they are taxable.

Organizations that rely on volunteers are wondering what other incentives might be taxable.

"Our concern, like most of the volunteer managers in the state, is, unless this is overturned, we're setting a precedent where any sort of incentive that's provided to a volunteer is called into question," said Kathleen Joy, executive director of the Oregon Commission for Voluntary Action Service.

One expert said the rulings probably don't cover items of small value &

T-shirts at a charity race or doughnuts at a telephone bank for a public radio fund drive.

"We don't know where that line is," said Nena Cook, an employment attorney with Sussman Shank in Portland. "I suspect that T-shirts are OK, and now we know that ski passes are not."

State Rep. Chuck Burley, R-Bend, has drafted a bill to exempt the rewards given to volunteers at ski areas, including ski patrollers, from unemployment tax, minimum wage and workers' compensation laws.

But on Tuesday, witnesses and committee members voiced reservations, saying it was overly broad and could put Oregon out of compliance with federal tax law, possibly costing the state $97 million in federal funds.

Rob Edwards, tax manager for the Oregon Employment Department, suggested keeping the value of incentives to a minimum and not making them contingent on completing the volunteer work.

Meanwhile, the Bend foundation is using about 15 volunteers instead of the normal 25 this winter and plans to pay $287 in unemployment taxes for the passes it distributes, which means the volunteers should report the passes as taxable income, the state Revenue Department says.


Information from: The Oregonian,

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