One area of workers compensation that varies significantly from state to state is how volunteers are treated by the workers compensation statutes. While employees are almost always covered for workers compensation, work comp coverage for volunteers is not mandatory in most states. The different states do not even agree on whether or not a volunteer is entitled to workers compensation benefits. In the states that do allow workers compensation benefits for volunteers, there is no uniformity of what constitutes a volunteer. Therefore, this discussion of volunteers and workers compensation will be generic.
While volunteers can be found in almost any type of business, they are most often associated with charitable organizations, religious organizations, non-profit organizations, hospitals and governmental departments – like volunteer firefighters, paramedics, forest service and parks. (Some states that do not recognize volunteers as employees make exceptions for volunteer firefighters covering them as employees while not covering other volunteers).
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Workers compensation is meant to cover employers for employees who are injured while working. A volunteer, is not an employee, but is providing a benefit to the employer. By definition, a volunteer is a person who provides services without the expectation of compensation or any kind. To be a true volunteer, the person providing the volunteer service – not the employer – determines when the volunteer works, both how often and how long. If the employer is setting precise hours, and treating the volunteer as an employee in every way except compensation, some states will consider the individual an employee not a volunteer.
The first question the workers compensation insurer will ask when a work comp claim is presented for a volunteer is: Does the volunteer receive any form of compensation? Compensation does not mean a salary or hourly wages. Compensation in the case of a volunteer can be anything – a living allowance, a discount not available to others, vouchers, room and board, a stipend, certificates, credits, etc. If the volunteer receives any benefit in exchange for the volunteer service being provided, the volunteer will be treated as an employee. If the volunteer does not expect to receive anything of value for the services being provided, than the person is truly a volunteer for the purposes of workers’ compensation.
When a volunteer is covered by the workers compensation statutes of the state, the medical benefits provided by workers compensation will be the same as the medical benefits of a regular employee. The question that often comes up is how are indemnity benefits handled for a volunteer that is unable to resume their volunteer duties for the employer? Different states handle this in different ways. Some states will require the insurer to pay the volunteer the state minimal indemnity amount per week. In some states the employer and/or insurer will try to calculate the value of the volunteers services to establish a value for disability payments. Other states provide the volunteer with no indemnity compensation, just medical benefits.
Some states, for instance California, allow employers to “opt in” for workers compensation coverage of their volunteers, regardless of whether or not the volunteers receive any benefit from their volunteer work. This is beneficial to the employer as it eliminates the potential for an injured volunteer bringing a tort claim against the employer for an injury.
The workers compensation insurer bases its premium calculation on the gross payroll for the employer. The volunteer, who is receiving no pay, is not included in the premium calculations, but increases the insurers exposure to claims. This can create issues with the insurer when they are paying the work comp claim of an injured volunteer. If an employer knows it will have volunteer workers, the employer should make that fact known to the insurer to prevent a coverage dispute from erupting after a work comp claim is filed.
While adding volunteers with the work comp insurer will increase your work comp premium, it is better to have the workers compensation coverage than to be exposed to the volunteer bringing a liability lawsuit against your company. If the volunteer brings a tort action against your company, their potential monetary recovery is much higher than it is under work comp. In a tort claim, not only does the volunteer have the potential to recover their medical cost, they can recover for any pain and suffering they have endured as a result of the injury.
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If you have volunteers working for your organization or business, you need to familiarize yourself on how your state treats volunteers when it comes to workers’ compensation. Please consult with your state workers’ compensation agent, broker, board or industrial commission on how volunteers are handled for the purpose of workers’ compensation in your state.
Author Rebecca Shafer, JD, President of Amaxx Risks Solutions, Inc. is a national expert in the field of workers compensation. She is a writer, speaker and website publisher. Her expertise is working with employers to reduce workers compensation costs, and her clients include airlines, healthcare, printing/publishing, pharmaceuticals, retail, hospitality and manufacturing. www.LowerWC.com
Contact: RShafer@ReduceYourWorkersComp.com .
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Do not use this information without independent verification. All state laws vary. You should consult with your insurance broker or agent about workers comp issues.
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