Workers' comp for volunteers

Many organizations and nonprofits around the country rely on the help of volunteers to operate. Nonprofit organizations such Red Cross, United Way, Goodwill, and Habitat for Humanity use hundreds of thousands of volunteers each year. With so many people offering their time and services for free, it’s important they’re protected should something happen. 

Unfortunately, when it comes to injuries in the workplace, volunteers aren’t usually covered under the standard workers’ compensation plan. While there are exceptions, organizations that use volunteers may need to find other ways to protect themselves and their voluntary staff should a workplace accident occur.

Does workers' compensation cover volunteers?

Even though each state has its own set of laws and regulations around workers’ compensation, generally, the answer is no. Only employees can receive benefits from a workers’ comp plan in most scenarios. This lack of coverage can leave volunteers and the organizations they are helping financially responsible for any injuries that occur.

If you currently run a nonprofit organization and are using volunteers, or plan to in the future, you will want to take a few proactive steps to protect the organization, such as:

  • Reviewing your current workers’ compensation policy to see if volunteers are covered
  • Discuss your current insurance products with an insurance agent to see if volunteers have coverage under other policies
  • Provide waivers to volunteers in instances where the organization’s workers’ comp and general liability insurance won’t cover a workplace injury

What is the difference between a volunteer and an employee?

Often, workers’ compensation doesn’t cover volunteers because most states only provide coverage for employees. The main difference between the two categories is whether or not the individual receives compensation for their time and efforts. Unlike employees who expect to receive payment for their time—volunteers do not. 

However, nonprofit organizations need to be careful about the benefits it offers their volunteers. For many states, compensation doesn’t necessarily have to be the payment of money. If a nonprofit provides meals, discounts, or other benefits to its volunteers, the state could consider these payments-in-kind and classify the volunteers as employees.

If you are unsure how the state will view your volunteers, you should speak with your insurance provider.

When might workers' comp cover volunteers?

There are certain instances and scenarios where volunteers receive coverage under workers’ compensation. For example, if a volunteer is given payments-in-kind—gifts, meals, discounts, or other items—then they could be considered an employee and would be covered under workers’ comp.

Additionally, the following type of volunteers often qualify for the coverage too:

  • Volunteers who perform emergency services (firefighters, auxiliary police officers, EMTs)
  • Volunteers working for a public employer such as state agencies

What coverage options exist for volunteers?

Since workers’ compensation doesn’t provide coverage for most volunteers, it’s essential to find ways to mitigate your nonprofit’s risk. One way to lower this risk is to ask your volunteers to sign a waiver before volunteering with your organization. These waivers are a great way to prevent lawsuits should an injury occur to a volunteer. 

Another proactive step you can take is speaking with your insurance company about covering volunteers under a volunteer accident policy. This type of coverage will assist with the medical costs associated with a workplace injury should it impact a volunteer.

Remember, every situation is different and state workers’ compensation laws are subject to change, so be sure to do your research and speak with a trusted advisor.

Thanks for reading! Please note that this content is intended for educational purposes only. As laws change regularly, you should refer to your state legislation and/or an advisor for specific legal counsel. If you’re a small business owner, learn more about workers’ compensation insurance or check your current rate in 3 minutes.

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