Volunteer Labor Laws

People volunteering at soup kitchen
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Unpaid labor, as beneficial as it might be, comes with strings attached. The Fair Labor Standards Act, administered by the Department of Labor, defines the types of businesses qualified to use volunteers and outlines guidelines and laws for which qualifying businesses of all sizes must comply. For businesses that do have the option to use volunteers, it’s critical to be mindful that while volunteering is a viable way to run or supplement the business, there's a fine line between a volunteer and an employee that no organization can cross.

Legal Definition of a Volunteer

In administering volunteer laws under the FLSA, the Department of Labor follows Supreme Court guidance in establishing the definition of a volunteer. DOL directives say a volunteer is an individual who donates time to a religious, charitable or other non-profit organization for the furthering of public service, religious or humanitarian objectives without an expectation of pay. Under FLSA laws, volunteers must be acting from a humanitarian standpoint and can’t be coerced, intimidated or otherwise persuaded to perform work for no pay.

Private vs. Public Sector

FLSA laws distinguish between private and public sector businesses and organizations in establishing individual and organizational volunteering guidelines. First, there are no restrictions preventing paid, private sector employees from volunteering in any capacity or line of work in the public sector. There are, however, restrictions on paid, public sector employees. Specifically, public sector employers may not allow paid employees to volunteer additional, unpaid time to perform identical, similar or related job duties for which they are employed. When it comes to private sector, for-profit businesses, individuals are prohibited from volunteering their services.

Volunteer Hours Management Issues

There are no labor laws limiting the number of hours a volunteer can work in a day or a week. Despite this, Susan J. Ellis, a specialist in the area of volunteerism, recommends setting an initial, probationary limit for new volunteers. According to Ellis, a “getting acquainted” period provides a benefit to both the volunteer and the organization. Following this, however, it’s up to the organization to set hourly limits based on the suitability of the match and the amount of work available.

Volunteer vs. Employee

It’s crucial for any organization accepting volunteers to establish a clear understanding between the organization and individual that the individual is indeed volunteering. A volunteer can’t receive money or indirect compensation, such as a free health club membership, that has an attached dollar value. If this happens, a volunteer must be classified as an employee and the organization is liable for paying wages, covering the employee under for workers’ compensation insurance and for providing the same benefits other employees receive. The organization can, however, offer incentives such as free parking or a cafeteria discount aimed at retaining volunteers, provided the incentive benefits the organization more than its volunteers.

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