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Employee or volunteer? It matters in workers’ comp

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in Employee Benefits Program,Human Resources

If your organization pays someone a small amount to perform extra tasks around your workplace, are they technically “employees”?

It’s not an academic question.

The person may be considered an employee, especially if you supply any equipment or supplies. And that means you may be on the hook for workers’ compensation benefits if the person is hurt on the premises.

Recent case: Brookhaven Baptist Church relied on parishioners to perform most of its maintenance and repairs. Edwin Halvorson, a church trustee, often helped trim bushes, paint and perform other tasks.

When Halvorson volunteered to mow the church’s lawn, he asked for a small payment of $25 per week. The church supplied the mower and gas. One day, while working on the lawn, he gathered up some hedge clippings and set fire to them using a can of gasoline. It was a fatal mistake.

His widow sued for workers’ comp survivor benefits, arguing he was an employee because the church paid him for mowing.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court agreed that, when it came to cutting the grass, Halvorson was an employee, since the church paid him and supplied the equipment. But since he died while doing volunteer work (burning hedge clippings), workers’ comp didn’t cover him. Had he died while mowing, it would have paid benefits. (Brookhaven Baptist Church v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board [Halvorson], No. 35 MAP 2005, Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, 2006)  

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