Like workers' compensation in general, state laws regarding provision of workers' compensation benefits to volunteers vary widely among the states. Some state workers' compensation statutes automatically include volunteers in their definition of employee. Many do not. Among those states that include volunteers, some include only certain classes of volunteers. Some states do not include volunteers in their definition of employee, but do allow organizations that utilize volunteers the choice of whether to offer them workers' compensation eligibility.
In some states, the issue of whether a volunteer is an employee has been determined by the courts. The determinations are based on two different factors. Some states consider whether volunteers are paid some sort of benefit such as housing, room and board, or reimbursement for expenses. If so, they will likely be treated as an employee for purposes of workers' compensation. Other states may minimize any monetary benefit, but look closely at whether the employer exercises significant control over the volunteer's work or service.
In those states and for those employers who provide coverage for volunteer workers who are injured, the eligibility for coverage generally has the same requirements as for paid workers:
- That the volunteer was injured during authorized volunteer hours
- That the volunteer was injured while working within the scope of the volunteer's service to the employer
- That the injury was not caused by the volunteer's intentional or criminal behavior or because of intoxication
The benefits that volunteers are eligible for are usually the same as those for which any worker would be eligible, including lost wages. Since volunteers are not paid for their volunteer positions, states have a variety of ways to calculate disability pay for injured volunteers. The following methods reflect the way in which states may calculate volunteer lost wages:
- Set benefits - Some states have set forth a schedule indicating specific dollar amounts that an injured volunteer will receive for specific injuries.
- Percentage of wages from regular employment - Some states use a formula that awards the volunteer a certain percentage of the amount they earn from their regular employment.
- Average industrial worker - Some states pay volunteers the same rate that would be paid to the average industrial worker in the state.
- Minimum wage - Some states pay volunteers based on the minimum wage.
Many nonprofit organizations rely on volunteers to forward their missions and provide their services. Therefore, nonprofits are very aware of the need to provide coverage for those volunteers. Volunteers themselves may want to be sure that their injuries will be covered, either because they are automatically included with employees under state law or because the non-profit for whom they volunteer has arranged to cover them.
Many small towns and municipalities all over the country have all-volunteer fire departments. States treats volunteer firefighters differently; some specifically provide coverage for volunteer firefighters, others do not. In some locales the municipality itself provides the needed coverage.
Sept. 11 World Trade Center Volunteers
In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center (WTC) in New York City, over 35,000 individuals volunteered to help. Some volunteered immediately in the search and rescue of survivors and some worked over the next several weeks in the actual clean up of the area. Because of their exposure to toxic pollutants in the air, including, among others, asbestos and the particulate matter from concrete powder, a large percentage of these volunteers have experienced debilitating medical conditions. Most of these medical conditions involve respiratory issues, some involve gastrointestinal issues and a good many involve psychological conditions.
IMPORTANT NOTE TO SEPT. 11 VOLUNTEERS: Special legislation allows volunteer and paid Sept. 11 rescue, recovery or cleanup workers to register with the New York Workers' Compensation Board (WCB) until September 11, 2010, to preserve their right to file future workers' compensation claims for Sept. 11 injuries or illnesses. ***CONSULT AN ATTORNEY AND THE NEW YORK STATE WORKERS' COMPENSATION BOARD IMMEDIATELY FOR CURRENT INFORMATION.*** All paid and volunteer workers are encouraged to apply, whether they missed earlier filing deadlines, have not yet filed or had an earlier claim denied or granted, even if they are not yet showing any symptoms of harm and regardless of immigration status or current place of abode. For information and a link to the registration form, access http://www.wcb.state.ny.us/. If you were a 9/11 worker or volunteer, be sure to register with the WCB and consult an experienced workers' compensation attorney immediately to understand your workers' compensation rights.
Katrina Hurricane Volunteers
Recently, many well-meaning volunteers have flocked to the Gulf Coast to assist in the hurricane Katrina relief effort. While it is true that disaster-relief organizations need the volunteer services of those trained in healthcare, law enforcement, firefighting, and other disaster-related occupations, volunteers face extremely dangerous conditions that could cause illness and injury and for which they may find themselves or their dependent families unrecompensed by any workers' compensation program.
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