Legally speaking, a for-profit business cannot have a volunteer. Federal law defines an employee as someone who an employer directs or permits to work for her so the employer can retain a profit. Likewise, a for profit operation is traditionally motivated by profits. Someone who does work at a for-profit farm is generally helping the farm meet that end. The fact that the worker isn’t paid is not relevant—the farm is being helped and the farm owner is permitting the work. That means the worker is an employee (unless they are an intern or independent contractor). The federal definition of a volunteer is someone who is motivated by charitable or humanitarian reasons for a public agency with no expectation of receiving compensation for her services. So, volunteering for a for-profit business just doesn’t work under the dominant legal paradigm.

The reasoning behind this is again about preventing exploitation and coercion of workers. As the theory goes, the business owner is effectively making money off the employee, so the employee deserves a cut in it. Otherwise the economic and power dynamic is just not equitable.

“My CSA members work in return for their share, come and pick their own produce, and have family days where I incorporate picking as a fun activity for kids? Is that somehow prohibited because it’s like volunteering and I’m a for-profit business?”

What does this mean for the for-profit farm that wants to have volunteers?

Employment laws most likely apply to volunteers

In summary, “volunteers” who actually engage in work for a for-profit farm are most likely considered “employees.” This means that all applicable federal and state employment laws must be followed for these workers—including minimum wage, workers’ compensation, and payroll tax requirements. For more details on federal and state employment law requirements, see Farm Employment Law: Know the basics and make them work for your farm. For guidance on what to do when hiring an employee, see Tax and Paperwork Checklist for Hiring an Ag Employee.

“It will take time to adapt my volunteer programs to be consistent with employment rules. What can I do to manage risk right now?”