Does Your Business Use Volunteers? Do They Need To Be Covered Under Your Workers' Comp Plan?

Posted on: 19 September 2016

Volunteers are an important asset to many schools, social service organizations, hospitals, nursing homes, adult care centers, and non-profit organizations. Volunteer work is even required in some high schools in order to graduate. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says that between September 2014 and September 2015, more than 62 million people volunteered at least once. But where do volunteers fit into the picture when it comes to workers' compensation coverage? Do they need to be covered or not?

Your State Laws May Address The Issue

A volunteer is still a worker, just one that's unpaid. However, some states preclude covering them under workers' compensation, even if your organization has it for your paid employees. Other states require it for some types of volunteers and allow coverage of others to be optional. For example, Ohio law generally doesn't allow unpaid volunteers to be covered under workers' compensation programs. However, it does require public employers, like cities and towns, to cover any voluntary emergency workers that they use, including volunteer firefighters, police, or emergency medical personnel. It allows public employers to elect whether or not to cover non-emergency workers and people who are assigned volunteer work in lieu of jail or fines.

It's important to understand the exact nuances of your particular state's laws before you try to cover a volunteer under your workers' comp program (or decide not to do so). 

You Must Also Take Care Not To Misclassify Someone As A Volunteer

Misclassification is another issue that you need to take into consideration when you decide whether or not to add a volunteer to your workers' compensation coverage. Similar to the problems that employers have with independent contractors, the distinction between a volunteer and an employee can be a fine one.

Indirect compensation, even if it isn't in the form of cash, can tip the scales and make your volunteer an actual employee for the purposes or workers' comp benefits:

  • Do you provide free parking especially for volunteers?
  • Do you provide free meals in the cafeteria for the volunteers?
  • Do you offer free services in exchange for the volunteer's services, such as free access to the therapy pool and exercise equipment at the senior care center you run?
  • Is there any other form of quid-pro-quo happening in lieu of payment?

You should also take a look at how much autonomy the volunteer has while doing his or her work. Is he or she obliged to a specific schedule or can your volunteer work at his or her own convenience? Is he or she doing work that would normally be done by paid employees or providing extra help that wouldn't normally be provided except through volunteer service? 

What should you consider about volunteers and workers' compensation?

If you have the option of covering volunteers under your workers' compensation plan, it could be expensive—but it could also end up saving you a fortune if the volunteer becomes injured. If you don't cover the volunteer and he or she gets injured, that does open your business up to the possibility of a personal injury lawsuit if there's negligence involved on your part. Ultimately, you have to consider the value of the volunteer services. If the services your volunteers provide are worth the additional insurance coverage cost, covering them is probably the wise choice. 

If you have any doubt about whether or not you should be covering your volunteers under your workers' comp plan, contact an attorney to discuss the situation. It's better to be sure and safe than risk an unnecessary lawsuit down the line. VIsit websites like for more info.