Does FLSA Apply to Volunteers?

Volunteer work is a great way for people to contribute to a worthy cause, learn about an occupation, develop skills, and build confidence. The Department of Labor, in interpreting the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), recognizes the benefits of volunteer work when individuals are involved in charitable and public purposes. However, when an unpaid volunteer position is abused to take the place of paid labor, then the question arises: does FLSA apply to volunteers?

For decades, the city of Jacksonville Beach used young volunteer lifeguards. They received training, enjoyed the camaraderie of the group, and served on holidays and Sundays. The group became known as the Volunteer Lifesaving Corps, had its own board of directors, and developed some initiation rituals which, at least at first, were to encourage discipline, dedication, and determination. If the volunteers did well with the corps, then there would likely be an opportunity to work for the city.

Someone complained, and the Department of Labor became interested. An investigation was undertaken, and it was revealed that there was much overlap between volunteer lifeguards and lifeguards employed by the city. They appeared to be all part of the same entity. The investigation also found that the volunteer lifeguards were pressured to work for free and utilized in the same roles as paid lifeguards. Leaders of the corps disagreed, noting that the opportunity to work for the city was simply a bonus. People who didn’t want to volunteer but wanted to work as a lifeguard could find three other beaches within a few miles.

Some former corps members provided information about initiation rituals involving grabbing ankles and being whipped by a belt with the expected response of asking for another lash. The initiate was then expected to sprint as fast as possible without waiting for the pain to subside. This occurred on the beach but moved to an undisclosed location away from the public in 1998. Hazing continued off-site with the leadership of the volunteer corps disavowing any approval. Many former corps members rallied to the defense of the corps to no avail.

Volunteer Labor Laws

Volunteer work is permitted under FLSA for religious, charitable, civic, humanitarian, or similar nonprofit organizations as long as there is no involvement in commercial activities by the nonprofit organization. The line is crossed, however, when there is contemplation or receipt of compensation, or the role served by the volunteer displaces regular employees for work or would normally be performed by regular employees. See, DOL Fact Sheet #14A: Non-Profit Organizations and the Fair Labor Standards Act., August 2015.

While volunteering for the city as a lifeguard and serving public or humanitarian purposes, the role was much the same as that of employee lifeguards. While the volunteers served to fill less desirable hours, such as weekends and holidays, that was not enough. The Department of Labor found numerous violations, ordering the city to pay $122,000 in back wages. The city dissolved the corps. It is hard to know what role hazing played in this matter but certainly did not help the optics. The line was crossed between volunteerism and employment.

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