Employees can’t ‘volunteer’ to do extra work for free

An hour worked must be an hour paid, according to the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). For private employers, that means there’s no such thing as an employee putting in “volunteer” time.

While the FLSA has been around for decades, some employers still think they can circumvent this inconvenient truth. If some of your managers share this misconception, the following case may make them change their minds.

Recent case: Sheriff’s deputy Nathan Campbell campaigned for the creation of a K-9 unit that would include his two dogs. The sheriff’s department agreed after Campbell said there would be no cost to the department. Campbell trained the dogs and started the program.

Later, Campbell sued, alleging he should have been paid for all the time he spent caring for the dogs. The department argued that since Campbell had agreed to create the unit at no cost, he shouldn’t be able to claim overtime.

The court disagreed. It said the department couldn’t simply agree not to pay Campbell; it still had to comply with the FLSA. Even worse, the court said the de­­part­­ment hadn’t acted in good faith. Campbell can now go back three years and de­­mand double damages. (Campbell v. Kelly, et al., No. 3:09-CV-435, SD OH, 2011)

The DOL on ‘volunteer time’

“The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) defines employment very broadly, i.e., ‘to suffer or permit to work.’ … Under the FLSA, employees may not volunteer services to for-profit private sector employers.”

— U.S. Department of Labor