Having this blog for nearly eight years, it’s fair to say that I’ve covered quite a few topics. But every once in a while, a never-before-discussed issue makes it way to the forefront. Today is one of those days.
My colleague, Gary Starr, has a post today about a recent Connecticut Appellate Court decision (CHRO v. Echo Hose Ambulance) that analyzed whether a volunteer could be an “employee” under the state’s anti-discrimination laws and how courts are to make that determination. For additional background, the Connecticut Law Tribune has this article.
Volunteers are essential in supporting some public services and supplementing the work force of many not-for-profit organizations. But suppose a volunteer has a complaint about how he or she is being treated.
Perhaps that person even believes that he or she is being harassed.
When a volunteer believes he/she has been mistreated, is he/she protected by the Connecticut Fair Employment Practices Act (FEPA), even though the volunteer is not “employed”?
What other avenues does the person have except to stop volunteering?
Or, put another way, when that person is carrying out important functions related to the mission of the agency and acting under the direct supervision of the leadership of the agency, can claims of discrimination be brought to and be resolved by the CHRO?
A recent appellate court decision, in a case of first-impression in Connecticut, better defined how a person can make a claim that he or she was an “employee”.
In doing so, the court first held that it does not matter whether the agency controls or directs the volunteer’s services or defines the methods or means by which the services are provided. What matters instead is whether and how the volunteer is remunerated.
Does the volunteer receive job-related benefits and, if so, how great are such benefits? This means that the volunteer must allege and prove that he/she receives benefits far greater than a thank you commendation and a party celebrating his/her service.
The volunteer must establish that he or she receives such benefits as health insurance, vacation and sick pay, eligibility for a disability pension, group life insurance or other significant remuneration, which are the type of benefits employees are provided. The court said it is not enough to be given training, a uniform, equipment for carrying out an assignment, or even a modest payment.
Simply put, volunteers are volunteers and not employees, unless and until the “employer” provides significant benefits which will make the volunteer look like an employee and therefore will need to be treated like an employee.
When an organization starts providing tangible compensation or benefits to its volunteers in meaningful ways, the person who was willing to help out from “the goodness of her heart” may be transformed into an “employee” under state law and then has an avenue for objecting to discriminatory treatment.
For employers and organizations, the decision provides a notable reminder to review the status of your volunteers to ensure that you haven’t transformed any of them into “employees”.