Legal Q&A: Can a student or new graduate volunteer to work unpaid for an employer to gain experience?

February 2, 2015 | By NACE Staff

Legal Issues
Close up of a new graduate

TAGS: Internships, legal issues, volunteer,

In most instances, the answer is a resounding no.

Although some pundits recommend “volunteering” with an organization to gain experience (and a foot in the door), for-profit organizations cannot have “volunteers” performing work. This fact was recently highlighted by a case in California. In that matter, Westover Winery got hit with a $115,000 penalty for using “volunteers” to help with harvesting and bottling. Because the workers were “volunteers,” the winery did not provide them with compensation, nor did the winery provide workers’ compensation or pay payroll taxes. The winery was, however, a for-profit company and could not have “volunteers.” As a result, the winery was penalized for back pay, liquidated damages, and other fines.

Please note that the U.S. Department of Labor defines a volunteer as an individual who provides service to a public agency for civic, charitable, or humanitarian reasons without promise or expectation of compensation for services rendered. For-profit organizations aren’t “public agencies” and therefore cannot have volunteers perform work. As such, unless an organization falls within this minor exemption, it should not use volunteers to perform services.