June 07, 2019

Beware Free Labor AKA Volunteers

People want to volunteer their time to a variety of organizations for myriad reasons: humanitarian, religious or charitable. Sometimes, they just to stay active and engaged without the pressure of meeting the demands of being an employee. But employers beware, particularly those in the private sector. Despite best intentions by all, the U.S. Department of Labor and courts have a healthy skepticism when it come to private sector employers accepting this free labor. Case in point: On June 7th, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the DC circuit held an employer improperly classified a group of individuals as volunteers instead of employees.


Why? The court found the volunteers had a reasonable expectation of in-kind compensation. In exchange for volunteering to work at the shop, the volunteers were able to shop before the general public. The court also considered the degree of control exercised by the would-be employer.  Workers reported that they “were supervised by [the Company’s] employees.” And for evidence that the work was integral to the business, the evidence showed that even the would-be employer admitted the workers “were the lifeblood of their sales events.” As a result, the court found the workers were employees rather than volunteers.


Tips: From volunteers to independent contractors to unpaid interns, the proper classification of workers other than employees is critical to avoiding legal liability. If you missed FiveL Company’s May webcast, “Are You My Employer?…” click here to register and view the archived version ($25 pp and qualifies for 1.25 HRCI & SHRM credits).