Many organizations (including charities, non-profits, and religious organizations) rely on a mixture of employees and volunteers to help them in their day to day functions. The volunteers can play a very important role in an organization, but volunteers can also be a source of potential liability. A volunteer could later claim to be an employee and seek to receive employee entitlements such as wages, benefits, vacation, and severance.
To determine whether an individual is (or was) an employee or volunteer, courts and tribunals look at various factors and apply them on a case by case basis. The nature of the organization (e.g. religious, charitable, non-profit) is only one factor.
Here are some tips to reduce the risk of a volunteer being found to be an employee:
- Use a volunteer agreement – Have the volunteer sign a written volunteer agreement before the start of any volunteer work. The volunteer agreement should clearly outline the intention of the parties, define the volunteer’s role and responsibilities, and have the volunteer acknowledge that he/she does not expect and will not receive any wages, benefits, etc.
- Keep the roles separate – Employees and volunteers often work side by side, but it is helpful to minimize any overlap by consistently trying to keep the roles of volunteers separate and distinct from the roles of paid employees. If there is a certain task that is typically performed by paid employees, try to avoid having volunteers perform that same role.
- Avoid regular payments – An occasional honorarium for the purposes of appreciation and motivation are acceptable for volunteers. However, in some cases these payments have been considered a wage, especially when provided regularly.
- Avoid a fixed full-time schedule – Volunteers are not usually required to attend on a fixed full-time schedule. Instead, they are usually required on an “as-needed” basis and there is flexibility with scheduling. Volunteer services, at their core, are offered freely.
- Be explicit with nametags or business cards – If a volunteer is going to be interacting with members of the public, take steps to make sure the person is not mistaken as an employee. For example, if nametags or business cards are customary, a volunteer can have a nametag or business card noting they are a volunteer.
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