Following all these employment laws can be overwhelming for farmers with volunteers of any type. After all, even though for-profit farms are motivated to some degree by profits, many also emphasize social and ecological missions such as providing healthy food to the community and adopting conservation measures and sustainable farming practices. This explains why so many folks are willing to volunteer on sustainable farms with joy! The law has yet to catch up with this line of thinking.
Farmers with for-profit operations must realize that they are taking on some level of risk if they do not fully comply with applicable employment laws when having “volunteers.” With that said, a couple areas present particularly high risk. It’s highly recommended that farmers pay close attention to two areas as soon as possible: injuries and minimum wage requirements.
Carry workers’ compensation for volunteers
Farming Farming is dangerous and there’s a high potential that injuries will happen no matter what precautions are taken. Even if a volunteer gets hurt and has no intention of suing the farm, the volunteer’s health insurance company will likely have a different perspective. Insurance companies have a right to file a claim against a farm where an injury occurs, even without the consent of the person who got hurt. Most state’s require employers to carry workers’ compensation for their employees (and volunteers who are actually employees). Some states provide exemptions for small farms, and therefore some farmers don’t legally have to carry workers’ compensation. Farmers will need to look into their state’s laws to better understand risks involved. If workers’ compensation coverage is required and the farm doesn’t have it in place for volunteers, the farm could be fined even if an injury never occurs. The thresholds for these exemptions vary. To avoid such risks and headaches, farmers should strongly consider carrying workers’ compensation for any and all volunteers.
Follow wage requirements if volunteers are paid
In addition, farmers who provide some compensation to volunteers—whether in the form of cash or in-kind payments—run the risk of making it look more like an employee arrangement. Farmers who are required to pay at least minimum wage to their employees (i.e. if federal AND state exemptions to minimum wage for agricultural labor do not apply), should strongly consider ratcheting up any compensation provided to volunteers to at least the minimum wage amount.
Otherwise, they may be better off offering no compensation, as it will look less like an employment arrangement. Keep in mind that taxes, recordkeeping, eligibility to work requirements, and so on all still apply. However, these are not necessarily the highest risk factors considered by most farmers. It’s up to each farmer to assess their risk while realizing what’s at stake. For more details on minimum wage requirements, including the federal 500 man day exemption, what is required when hiring an employee, review Farmers’ Guide to Federal Employment Law.