What is a volunteer under Texas employment law?

Most people understand volunteering means giving away free labor, often to a charity or other non-profit organization. However, sometimes Texas for-profit businesses seek “volunteers” as a way of receiving unpaid labor or an employer requires its employees to volunteer time for a charitable or civic cause. What about these situations?

The Department of Labor has developed regulations around the provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) as they relate to volunteer work and address these issues. Generally Dallas-Fort Worth for-profit businesses cannot take on volunteers to obtain unpaid labor or require employees to volunteer for non-profit causes as a condition of employment without paying the employee for that time. Let’s explore these FLSA rules on volunteer work in greater detail and why these rules are important.

The FLSA rules on volunteer labor divide into three categories:

(1) volunteer labor for non-profit entities;

(2) volunteer labor for public sector agencies (government); and

(3) volunteer labor for for-profit employers. 

1. Volunteer labor for Texas non-profit groups

This is the easiest part of the rules. If you choose to volunteer for a non-profit group like a charity or church then those organizations can accept your volunteer labor without paying anything.

2. Volunteer labor for public sector entities

Generally you can volunteer to work for a government agency without expectation of payment for your labor. The main exception is if you work for a government employer. Then you cannot provide free labor to the government entity that employs you doing the same duties you normally do for pay.

For example, if you are a paid employee of your city’s animal shelter and you tend to the animals as part of your job duties then you cannot tend to the animals as a volunteer (you would have to be paid for that time) but you could volunteer at the city library teaching kids to read.

3. Volunteer labor and for-profit employers in Texas

Generally you cannot volunteer unpaid time to a for-profit employer. Let’s clarify. You could give away tiny amounts of time infrequently to a for-profit business and probably not have a right to expect wages.

For example, you eat at your favorite restaurant every day and sometimes pick up a piece of trash on the floor. You probably should not expect wages for that even if picking up trash is likely somebody’s paid job there. We’re talking about meaningful time spent in the service of the employer without pay–even if you agree to do that work under the guise of volunteering.

If the employer solicits “volunteers” to work in the business then that’s almost certainly a problem. If the business accepts “volunteers” who ask to work for free then that’s probably also a problem here. For-profit businesses are just not allowed to take in free labor.

When your Texas employer asks you to volunteer to a charity

Sometimes Dallas-Fort Worth employers rally employees to participate in a charitable function. This is fine because the employer is not actually obtaining a benefit from the labor. The employer is just creating an opportunity for employees to volunteer for a charitable entity.

This becomes a problem when the employer requires employees to volunteer time or punishes employees who fail to volunteer. If either happens then the employees are entitled to be paid for the volunteer time because the employer has “permitted the employee to suffer work” on its behalf.

There is no difference between the employer requiring the employee to perform her job duties and requiring the employee to do anything else. The employer controls the employee’s time and labor and therefore created compensable time.

We should distinguish this supposed volunteer time from an unpaid internship. In a valid unpaid internship the intern is not really working for the employer. The intern instead receives training and education. Some employers unlawfully mask unpaid labor as an unpaid internship but that is a different subject from the volunteer rules.

Why you cannot lawfully volunteer for a for-profit business

You might ask why you cannot volunteer for a for-profit business in Dallas or Fort Worth. There are a couple big reasons why.

First, if an employer can receive free work for which it would otherwise have to pay. Then the value of labor to that business goes way down. Employees as a whole will end up paid less because the employer can leverage the free labor against the paid laborer. Everybody would end up paid a lot less.

Second, some employers might decide employees should work partially as “volunteers” so they receive less pay for the same work. The employer then might make employees choose between losing the job or working partially for free. We don’t want employees put into either situation.

Employers unscrupulous enough to mandate unpaid work time are the same to fire employees who don’t work for free. If your employer requires you to work off the clock for any reason you should speak with a Texas unpaid wages attorney. You may be entitled to recover unpaid wages and attorney’s fees.

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