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Volunteering Versus Employment

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) defines the term employee to mean, “an individual who provides services or labor for an employer for wagers or other remuneration.” DHS states remuneration as “something of value such as no-cost or reduced-cost meals, lodging or other benefits in exchange for his or her labor or services.” For more information see Study in the States.

The Department of Labor states the following, “Individuals who volunteer or donate their services, usually on a part-time basis, for public service, religious or humanitarian objectives, not as employees and without contemplation of pay, are not considered employees of the religious, charitable or similar non-profit organizations that receive their service." See more information from the Department of Labor.

The US Department of Labor uses Section 203(e)(4) and Section 203(e)(5) of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) to define the term “employee”.

(4)(A) The term “employee” does not include any individual who volunteers to perform services for a public agency which is a State, a political subdivision of a State, or an interstate governmental agency, if—

(i) the individual receives no compensation or is paid expenses, reasonable benefits, or a nominal fee to perform the services for which the individual volunteered; and

(ii) such services are not the same type of services which the individual is employed to perform for such public agency.

(4)(B) An employee of a public agency which is a State, political subdivision of a State, or an interstate governmental agency may volunteer to perform services for any other State, political subdivision, or interstate governmental agency, including a State, political subdivision or agency with which the employing State, political subdivision, or agency has a mutual aid agreement.

(5) The term “employee” does not include individuals who volunteer their services solely for humanitarian purposes to private non-profit food banks and who receive from the food banks groceries.

The Test for Unpaid Interns and Students

Courts have used the “primary beneficiary test” to determine whether an intern or student is, in fact, an employee under the FLSA. In short, this test allows courts to examine the “economic reality” of the intern-employer relationship to determine which party is the “primary beneficiary” of the relationship. Courts have identified the following seven factors as part of the test:

  1. The extent to which the intern and the employer clearly understand that there is no expectation of compensation. Any promise of compensation, express or implied, suggests that the intern is an employee—and vice versa.
  2. The extent to which the internship provides training that would be similar to that which would be given in an educational environment, including the clinical and other hands-on training provided by educational institutions.
  3. The extent to which the internship is tied to the intern’s formal education program by integrated coursework or the receipt of academic credit.
  4. The extent to which the internship accommodates the intern’s academic commitments by corresponding to the academic calendar.
  5. The extent to which the internship’s duration is limited to the period in which the internship provides the intern with beneficial learning.
  6. The extent to which the intern’s work complements, rather than displaces, the work of paid employees while providing significant educational benefits to the intern.
  7. The extent to which the intern and the employer understand that the internship is conducted without entitlement to a paid job at the conclusion of the internship.

Examples of Volunteer Work

In many cases, the nature of religious, charitable and similar nonprofit organizations and schools allows individuals to volunteer their services in some capacity, usually on a part-time basis, but not as employees or with the expectation of pay for services rendered. For example:

  • Individuals may help out in a shelter or workshop

  • Individuals may assist people in hospitals or nursing homes to provide personal services for the sick or the elderly

  • Individuals may assist in a school library or cafeteria as a public duty to maintain effective services

  • Individuals may volunteer to perform tasks such as driving vehicles or folding bandages for the Red Cross

  • Individuals working with children with disabilities or disadvantaged youth

  • Individuals helping in youth programs as camp counselors, scoutmasters, or den mothers

  • Individuals providing child care assistance for needy working mothers

  • Individuals soliciting contributions or participating in benefit programs for such organizations

  • Individuals volunteering other services needed to carry out their charitable, educational, or religious programs.

The activities outline above, performed under such circumstances, do not create an employee - employer relationship. However, for immigration purposes, US immigration authorities may consider any position, if normally occupied by a paid employee or worker, as "employment", even if uncompensated and thus no longer considered volunteering. (Matter of Hall, 18 1& N Dec. 203(BIA 1982))