In the days of 19th Century shoe factories, they used to call it “stealing a trade”.  A person would wait on the line to get in for a day’s work without knowing how to make a pair.  They’d lie to get in, saying they were experienced and once they got in to the factory, they’d pick up the first few steps by watching the experienced workers around them.  Soon enough the foreman would figure it out and tell them to go, but by that time, they had already learned the first few steps.  The next day, they’d go to another factory and repeat the task, this time they knew the first part and would pick up a little more.  By the end of a week or two, they’d have learned how to make a pair and could go to any factory and get a full days work for pay – without ever having to apprentice or attend a shoe-making school.

Today we’re a little more open about wanting to gain some knowledge and experience.  I can’t tell you how many discussions I’ve had with craft producers about the myriad of requests they get from people wanting to volunteer or intern without pay.  It’s a great way for the volunteer to learn about the industry and brewing, distilling or winemaking.  It’s a wonderful public relations tool – someone’s just volunteered at your facility and they’re sure to chat up your beverage every chance they get… it’s also free labor. 

But there are a series of risks associated with volunteers that you need to evaluate and control before you open your doors to these cheerful faces.  Putting an actual volunteer program in place with set parameters and written documentation is essential to protecting your business.  A starting point for creating your program is identifying the volunteers’ activities the expectations you have of them, and figuring out how your current risk management controls could be impacted by volunteers.

At a minimum, as part of your program you’re going to want to have:

  • An Application Form;
  • A Signed Volunteer Agreement;
  • An Interview Process;
  • An Orientation and Training Program; and
  • A Volunteer Monitoring Policy.

In addition to possible labor and wage law issues and insurance considerations that we’ll discuss in the upcoming months, one important concern you need to have as part of initiating your volunteer program is the liability you may face if the volunteer hurts themselves or somebody else.

A volunteer, in some states, can be considered an agent for the purposes of the state’s workers’ compensation laws.  Depending on the amount of control you exercise over the volunteer’s activities you could find yourself in a situation – whether you want it or not – where an accident involving a volunteer could subject you to workers’ compensation procedures.  You will want to check your workers’ compensation insurance to determine if they are going to offer you coverage for these volunteers.  On the opposite side of that coin, what if you aren’t in the workers’ compensation situation.  If the volunteer is injured or hurts someone else you’ll need to ensure that some form of premises liability insurance or other policy will afford you coverage so your business isn’t faced with an avoidable exposure where a judgment against you could cripple your operations.

The last thing you want is to be faced with a situation where you’ve got an injury that you’re being sued for but no insurance coverage.  It’s vital to your volunteer operations and a good starting point in crafting your volunteer program.