Engaging in volunteer work is a noble activity that can benefit both the volunteer and the community. While volunteers aren’t typically considered employees and don’t receive regular compensation, there are situations where they may be entitled to worker’s compensation if injured while performing their volunteer duties. This article discusses the things that you need to know about volunteer work injury compensation. Read on to learn more.
1. What Is Work Injury Compensation?
Workers’ compensation is a type of insurance available exclusively to employees under contract. Its purpose is to provide medical care and financial support to those who suffer work-related injuries or illnesses.
When an employee accepts workers’ compensation benefits, they’re giving up their right to sue their employer for damages. Employers usually purchase workers’ compensation insurance from state-certified insurance companies or insurance funds. Some larger companies may choose to self-insure, but they must still comply with state laws and regulations.
2. Does Workers’ Compensation Apply To Volunteers?
Volunteering can be a fulfilling experience, whether you’re aiming to meet the average volunteer hours for medical school or participating in a company-sponsored feeding program. However, it’s important to note that workers’ compensation usually doesn’t cover volunteers in case of emergencies. There are exceptions to this rule, which we will discuss in the following sections.
3. Does Workers’ Compensation Apply To Employees Who Volunteer?
Employee-sponsored volunteerism refers to when an employer sponsors an event and employees volunteer to support the organization or do community service. Many businesses encourage team members to engage in community service as it can boost morale and satisfaction and strengthen camaraderie among employees.
However, employees who volunteer are typically not eligible for workers’ compensation benefits if they sustain injuries while volunteering, as the opportunity to volunteer was offered and accepted voluntarily.
That being said, there are some exceptions to this rule. In some states, employee-volunteers may be eligible for workers’ compensation benefits if they’re injured while performing tasks similar to those they would perform as an employee. Additionally, some employers may choose to provide workers’ compensation coverage to their team member volunteers, even if they’re not required to do so by law.
4. Workers’ Compensation Exceptions
While workers’ compensation insurance generally applies to regular employees who are injured while performing their usual job responsibilities, there are some exceptions to this rule. In certain situations, volunteers may also be eligible for workers’ compensation benefits. Here are some of those instances:
- Public Sector Volunteers
Individuals who volunteer in government-controlled agencies are often considered covered workers and may be entitled to workers’ compensation benefits. In the public sector, volunteers may be eligible for indemnity benefits, such as a certain amount of money, depending on the severity of their disability. This can include temporary disability, permanent partial or total disability, and death. For example, in Washington, covered worker volunteers are entitled to medical coverage.
These benefits are offered to individuals because volunteerism plays a crucial role in providing various public services, such as disaster relief efforts. However, volunteers may also experience certain risks while performing their duties, such as being wounded due to falling debris or electrical hazards, getting ill due to contagious diseases or carbon monoxide poisoning, or experiencing heat stroke due to prolonged exposure to high temperatures.
Volunteers who may be eligible for workers’ compensation benefits include those assigned to public schools, trial jurors, emergency medical technicians, volunteers assisting in police-related work, apprentice or volunteer firefighters, and government-assigned first responders. In addition, some states may allow parents who volunteer at nursery school programs or volunteers working for nonprofit organizations to receive workers’ compensation benefits. Some states also provide workers’ compensation coverage to emergency personnel who aren’t directly employed by the organization.
- Nonprofit Organization Volunteers
Nonprofit organizations typically provide workers’ compensation benefits to regular employees who are injured while performing their job duties. Workers’ compensation benefits can cover medical costs and lost wages while the employee recovers, as well as ambulance services and physical therapy if necessary.
In Washington, nonprofit charities in the private sector that qualify as exempt organizations under Internal Revenue Service (IRS) rules, such as churches, may also be able to provide workers’ compensation benefits to volunteers. To be eligible, nonprofit charities must hold a letter or document from the IRS stating their eligibility.
- Exemption By State Law
Depending on the state, volunteers may also be eligible for workers’ compensation benefits. For example, in Washington, certain organizations can purchase insurance to provide medical aid-only coverage for volunteers. This coverage only applies to medical costs and doesn’t include other benefits such as lost wages, permanent partial disability, or death.
In Washington, the following organizations may be eligible to provide medical aid-only workers’ compensation coverage for volunteers:
- Business organizations or employers that accept student employees who are enrolled in public and private K-12 institutions.
- Cities, counties, towns, public utility districts, and municipal corporations.
It’s important to note that businesses and organizations that wish to accept volunteers must make it clear that the coverage only applies to medical aid-only or any other coverages allowed depending on the state. However, it’s also important to understand that workers’ compensation coverage for volunteers can be complicated, even in states that allow for it, due to various factors such as the length of time volunteers are retained.
5. Penalties For Failure To Provide Coverage
In most states, volunteers aren’t regularly covered by workers’ compensation insurance. However, in states where coverage is required by law, it’s mandatory for businesses and organizations to provide it. Failure to do so can result in penalties.
Criminal penalties for being uninsured can involve fines, including:
- For businesses with five employees or fewer (within 12 months): Treated as a misdemeanor and fined between USD$1,000 and USD$5,000.
- For businesses with more than five employees (within 12 months): Treated as a Class E felony and fined between USD$5,000 and USD$50,000.
Civil penalties can also apply. Employers who don’t provide workers’ compensation coverage within ten or more days could face a fine of USD$2,000 for every ten days of non-compliance, or two times the cost of payroll compensation for the period of failure. These penalties are in addition to any other fines and penalties that may be imposed.
In most cases, work injury compensation or workers’ compensation does not apply to volunteers. However, there are exceptions depending on the state’s laws. For example, volunteers in the public sector, such as first responders like police officers, medical technicians, and volunteer firefighters, may be covered.
It’s also important to note that if allowed by the state, coverage may extend to volunteers, but it may only be limited to medical aid. Still, eligibility and rules around coverage for volunteers vary by state, so it’s important to determine whether you’re eligible for coverage and what the rules are before beginning any volunteer work.