Many Factors to Consider When Employing Unpaid Volunteers

herman_gary_SMCan a for-profit business make use of unpaid volunteers?

It is highly unlikely that a for-profit business can make use of unpaid volunteers; the organization would generally have to be nonprofit to do so.

Determining Volunteer Status

When determining whether one is a volunteer, the intent of the parties is the controlling factor.

If the person intends to volunteer his or her services in the spirit of devotion, self-sacrifice or service to the needy, that person is not an employee. Coercion must not be present.

If the person is performing tasks which might otherwise be performed by an employee, it is not likely that such a person could be a volunteer.

Because of the tacit threat of adverse action, employers and employees seldom deal with each other on an equal footing, creating a serious question about someone’s intention.

On the other hand, members of charitable, medical, religious or volunteer social organizations are usually involved out of a sense of commitment, duty and obligation.

Volunteers who intend to donate their services to religious, charitable or similar nonprofit corporations, without contemplation of pay and for public service, or religious or humanitarian objectives may be volunteers. The individual is not an employee of the religious, charitable or similar nonprofit corporation, which receives the services.

However, when the religious, charitable or nonprofit corporation operates a commercial enterprise serving the general public, such enterprises are subject to the California Industrial Welfare Commission orders and persons performing services therefore would have to be employees.

In certain circumstances, a regular employee of a religious, charitable or nonprofit organization may donate his or her services as a volunteer. Such services, however, may not be the usual services of the employee’s job.

Public Works

There are times when members of a community may desire to donate their time and energies to the completion of a certain public project, such as a park or playground. The Legislature created an amendment to the state’s public works laws to recognize such volunteerism.

Section 1720.4 of the California Labor Code recognizes and allows the work of volunteers on public works projects as an exemption to the prevailing wage requirements of the statute.

See: CalChamber California Labor Law Digest, p. 364; Division of Labor Standards Enforcement (DLSE) Manual, Section 43.6.7; DLSE Opinion Letters 1988.10.27, 1998.11.6.

The Labor Law Helpline is a service to California Chamber of Commerce preferred and executive members. For expert explanations of labor laws and Cal/OSHA regulations, not legal counsel for specific situations, call (800) 348-2262 or submit your question at

Staff Contact: Gary Hermann