Like regular employees, volunteers are generally protected under various provisions of the California labor laws. California's laws limit who may be considered a volunteer, and thus may be exempt from legal requirements for employees such as minimum wages and other labor rights. Volunteers in California may only serve civic, humanitarian or charitable purposes -- they cannot be employed in for-profit operations, unless for educational benefit. Volunteers may also be entitled to workers' compensation and are protected under California laws that prohibit child labor.
Definition of a Volunteer
While a volunteer generally means anyone who agrees to work for free, California labor laws narrow in on a more specific definition of a volunteer. According to California Labor Code Section 1720.4, which defines volunteering in California labor law, an individual must perform services freely and without coercion for a civic, humanitarian or charitable purpose to be considered a volunteer. To legally volunteer, an individual must offer her services to a public agency or nonprofit organization. Businesses may not legally utilize volunteers.
Workers' compensation is a type of usually mandatory insurance purchased by an employer that covers employees in the event of industrial accidents or occupational injury. California labor law permits the extension workers' compensation to volunteers during their time in service. Often, public agencies and nonprofits will grant volunteers insurance protection under workers' compensation as a means to help encourage volunteering and avoid the potential for lawsuits. In order to be deemed an employee for workers' compensation, the organization -- whether public or private -- usually must declare a volunteer as such prior to an injury incident. Under the law, this declaration should be in writing through a resolution of the governing body of the organization or agency, such as its board of directors.
Special circumstances apply in the case of volunteers who are children. The primary focus of California labor laws in this area is to avoid conflict between volunteering activities and school. To employ a minor as a volunteer in California, organizations must complete a Request for Volunteer/Unpaid Trainee Authorization for California Minors form to inform the child's parents and school of his volunteer activities. Additionally, California labor laws require organizations to adhere to strict scheduling requirements, including curfews, for child volunteers when school is in session.
Recent controversies have prompted some clarification from the California Labor Relations Department regarding labor laws and unpaid internships. Unpaid internships are a type of volunteering that is intended to provide educational opportunities -- and in some cases, school credit -- for volunteers. As of April 2010, the California Labor Relations Department applies six criteria based on federal law when determining the legality of an unpaid internship: the experience must resemble those of vocational schools, the experience is primarily for the benefit of the intern, the intern does not displace a regular employee, the intern's services provide no immediate advantage to the employer, the intern is not entitled to a job at the end of his internship, and both the employer and intern have a mutual understanding that no compensation is expected for the internship.