According to California volunteer labor laws, a “volunteer” is generally defined as a person who performs work for charitable, humanitarian, or civic reasons for a public agency or non-profit organization, without the expectation, promise, or receipt of any compensation for their work. If an individual is coerced or does not offer their services for free, then they will not be considered a volunteer under the law.  

In addition, a volunteer may also be given reasonable meals, lodging, transportation, nominal non-monetary awards, and incidental expenses if necessary to perform the work and will still be considered a volunteer. This is generally true so long as none of the above items are meant to be a replacement form of compensation. 

Although volunteers do not receive as many rights and benefits as paid employees do, the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (“FEHA”) does extend a few significant protections. These include the right to be free from harassment, discrimination, and retaliation in the workplace. 

There are also some instances where volunteers will enjoy immunity from personal injury lawsuits. For instance, if you are a nonprofit director or officer, emergency rescue personnel, an architect, or engineer, you may be immune from such lawsuits. However, not all categories of these roles or circumstances will provide immunity. Immunity is only available to such persons under certain circumstances.

Thus, if you are a resident of California state and would like to learn more about the legal protections you have as a volunteer, you should contact a local California employment attorney for further information. An attorney will also be able to answer any questions or concerns you have about being or becoming a volunteer in California.

Distinguishing Between Employee and Volunteer

Under California labor laws, an “employee” is generally defined as any individual who is under the direction and control of an employer either through appointment or by oral or written contract. Aside from the standard definition, some primary differences between employees and volunteers include that:

  • There are more regulations and better protections in place for employees than there are for volunteers;
  • Employees are paid workers, whereas volunteers typically perform tasks for free;
  • Employees who are wrongfully terminated can recover damages and certain remedies while volunteers usually cannot;
  • Employees can receive benefits (e.g., minimum wage, overtime, paid sick leave) and vacation days, but volunteers typically do not;
  • Employees tend to have weightier responsibilities and may need to sign confidentiality agreements, whereas volunteers are usually given simpler tasks and typically do not have to sign a confidentiality agreement to perform volunteer work;
  • If an employer has 5 or more employees, they must provide sexual harassment and abusive conduct training under California law. However, this same rule does not mandatorily apply to an organization’s volunteers. In other words, volunteers are exempt from this requirement. 
  • Most employees are required to adhere to a strict work schedule, while volunteers have the ability to offer their time whenever they want; and
  • Employees are generally permitted to work for any type of business or organization, but volunteers can only work for public and nonprofit companies. If a volunteer is hired by a private, for profit organization, then they will no longer be considered a true volunteer. 

Are Volunteers Covered Under Workers Compensation in California?

Every state provides different statutes for how to handle volunteers and workers’ compensation benefits. Workers’ compensation benefits are a type of insurance policy that provides wages and medical benefits to employees in the event that an employee is injured. In exchange for receiving workers’ compensation benefits, an employee gives up their right to sue their employer for any resulting injuries that occur in the workplace. 

Specifically, in the state of California, it may be possible to claim volunteer workers’ compensation in certain situations. For instance, if a California organization adopts a workers’ compensation policy that applies to its volunteers or if the organization labels its volunteers as “employees” solely for the purpose of allowing them to receive workers’ compensation benefits. 

A business or organization who adopts such policies for its volunteers must provide the same type of benefits to its volunteers as it does to its paid employees. It is important to note that workers’ compensation benefits are fixed, meaning that volunteers who receive these benefits will be limited to disability, medical, and injury-specific rehabilitative costs. 

On the other hand, if a volunteer cannot claim workers’ compensation benefits, then they may seek legal remedies through the California civil court system, including compensation for pain and suffering plus other damages. 

However, a plaintiff volunteer will only receive civil remedies if they can prove that the other party was at fault. If a case is successful, civil remedies generally offer much better damages awards than a volunteer would receive under workers’ compensation benefits. 

What are Some Common Legal Issues Volunteer Workers May Face?

Initially, California law did not offer volunteers any sorts of legal protections. Only employees traditionally received such rights. Over time, California eventually amended its legislation and became one of the first states to extend some legal protections to volunteers as well. Specifically, the first set of rights volunteers received were to be free from employer harassment, including both sexual harassment and hostile acts like bullying. 

As for employer discrimination, volunteers were originally only granted the right to be free from age discrimination. In other words, employers could not discriminate against a volunteer based on their age.  

Gradually, however, FEHA adopted the section on employment discrimination rules for employees and extended that coverage to volunteers. Thus, an employer may not discriminate against volunteers in California because of their sex, religion, disability, or race either. 

Are Volunteers Entitled to Damages in a Lawsuit?

Some damages awards and legal remedies that volunteers may potentially be entitled to if they bring a successful civil lawsuit include the following: 

  • Economic damages, such as monetary awards for medical expenses, hospital bills, pharmacy costs, future loss of earnings, and other out-of-pocket expenses; 
  • Noneconomic damages (e.g., pain and suffering, loss of consortium, loss of enjoyment of life, emotional distress, and so forth); and/or
  • Punitive damages.

Additionally, it is important to remember to check an organization’s volunteer policies. As mentioned above, some businesses will extend workers’ compensation benefits to its volunteers as well.

Why Seek an Attorney’s Advice?

Distinguishing between a volunteer and employee can be difficult in certain situations. Oftentimes, this task requires a close reading of the law and being able to apply it to the facts of a particular scenario. Thus, volunteers should consult a local employment attorney to find out whether they are entitled to damages and if they may potentially qualify as an employee instead. 

Also, if you live in California and are a volunteer who believes they were wronged in some way, you may want to contact a California employment attorney for further legal advice that pertains to the laws in your state. Your attorney will be able to assess the details of your case, can discuss your options for legal recourse, and can explain what rights you have as a volunteer in California. 

In addition, your lawyer can also help you prepare and file your claim, provide representation in court, and can assist you in getting the best possible outcome based on the facts of your case.