Sixth Circuit: Do Volunteers Have an Expectation of Compensation?


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April 16, 2018


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In Acosta v. Cathedral Buffet, the Sixth Circuit recently clarified the definition of a volunteer. There, a buffet restaurant, a for-profit corporation operated by Grace Cathedral, used volunteers to service patrons in addition to regular employees. The faith leader at Grace Cathedral told church members that God was calling on them to volunteer at the buffet, and that failing to do so was tantamount to a sin under the church’s doctrine. As a result of the church’s strategies, many members did volunteer. Employees and volunteers performed the same restaurant-related tasks; however, volunteers were not paid for their time.

The Sixth Circuit stated that because the workers did not have an expectation of compensation, they were volunteers rather than employees, and therefore did not qualify as FLSA employees. Typically, whether a worker is an FLSA employee is determined by the economic realities of the business relationship. However, the court stated that the “economic realities” test is secondary to the threshold question of whether there was an expectation of compensation.

Further, the court stated that economic coercion may defeat volunteer status under the FLSA, but spiritual coercion or societal pressure did not. “[T]he giving of one’s time and money through religious obligation is a common tenet of many faiths.” The court distinguished this interpretation of coercion, in part, as applicable in Acosta because the volunteers were providing labor to a church-affiliated enterprise.

It is unclear what reach this ruling will have going forward. For now, organizations that use volunteers should review communications with volunteers to ensure that no expectation of compensation is created.

Action Items

  1. Review communications with and documentation for volunteers for compliance with this ruling.
  2. Subscribers can call our HR On-Call Hotline at (888) 378-2456 for further assistance.

Disclaimer: This document is designed to provide general information and guidance concerning employment-related issues. It is presented with the understanding that ManagEase is not engaged in rendering any legal opinions. If a legal opinion is needed, please contact the services of your own legal adviser.

© 2018 ManagEase

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