by Mark Jones

It’s not uncommon for a staff member to want to serve as an unpaid volunteer at your ministry, especially if they really see ministry happening. In some cases this willing staff volunteers to work “off the clock” or sign up for traditional volunteer roles. But what seems to be a great gesture and good use of someone who knows your ministry well can easily become a very sticky issue, putting your ministry at risk.

Every ministry must walk a fine line to ensure they are not violating federal laws which protect employees but also support the ability of a nonprofit to use unpaid volunteers. Volunteers may work for nonprofits without expectation of compensation, and nonprofits are free to recruit and retain true volunteers without undue worry about the risk of wage and hour claims. But employee rights to pay and overtime also exist. So how do you allow an employee to be both an employee and a volunteer?

The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) provides the following guidance to follow to ensure volunteer status is clearly established:

  • Designation of “volunteer” status is not done unilaterally by the employer to avoid minimum wage or overtime requirements;
  • The act of volunteering truly must be voluntary, without any direct or implied coercion from the employer;
  • The employee’s volunteer activities must not be similar to the services he/she performs as part of his/her regular employment; and
  • The volunteering must be performed outside the employee’s normal work hours.

It is important to ensure the volunteer service activity is not similar to the work they perform. Never ignore “off the clock” service by an employee. Employers who “look the other way” when staff “volunteers” after hours to do additional work expose themselves to costly wage and hour claims in the future. If a staff member is doing similar work as they get paid to do, then pay them for the additional time.

Now for my disclosure: This post is not intended to provide legal advice. Contact your attorney for specific guidance and advice for your nonprofit.

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