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Employee vs Volunteer – What's the Difference?

Along with summer hours and a company BBQ, organizations can also host new faces and talent through the summer months.   Many students are off for the summer, and really want to avoid ‘just a job’; instead they are looking for real life experience in the career field of their choice.   It is not uncommon (although it is unfortunate) that students would take unpaid work in their field over paid work that is completely unrelated. Compensation aside, for students this is a great opportunity to gain some relevant work experience and for Employer’s this is an excellent way to receive some extra help and develop young talent. In Canada providing unpaid work is permitted and many organizations take part in this practice. However, not all organizations are properly defining this working relationship and the line between being an employee for the company or a volunteer is becoming blurred.

So what is the difference?

According to the Employment Standards Act an Employee is defined as:

“(a) a person, including an officer of a corporation, who performs work for an employer for wages, (b) a person who supplies services to an employer for wages, (c) a person who receives training from a person who is an employer, or (d) a person who is a homeworker”

Simply put, an employee is a person who performs work for another and receives wages in return.

In contrast, a Volunteer is defined as:

“… persons who choose to provide services for non-profit organizations or charities for which they do not expect compensation. In a profit-based organization, any person allowed, directly or indirectly, to perform work normally done by employees is considered to be an employee, not a volunteer.”

If the organization is providing opportunity, but not wages, it is important for employer’s to properly define this working relationship as a volunteer role. As an employer, it can be very appealing to bring on help for the summer and not have to pay!  You can provide work experience (that’s what’s in it for them) and not have to pay out wages (that’s what it’s in it for you).  It can all seem very win-win.

But you need to be cautious.  Employment Standards protects workers from working for less than minimum wage unless they are truly volunteers.  Even if a student offers their services for free, the onus is on you to make sure the role available meets the criteria to be considered a volunteer position. If you do have a volunteer and would like to provide the opportunity, you should make note of the following: [listdot]

  • have a signed agreement that clearly indicates that the work being done is unpaid – get a free sample here
  • the volunteer should not have a clearly defined ‘job’ but rather learning opportunities and options
  • the volunteer should have flexibility in scheduling days and hours worked (although it is reasonable to establish shared expectations on this beforehand)
  • avoid giving the volunteer critical tasks that would otherwise be done by an employee
  • do not imply a promise of employment upon completion of the volunteer term

[/listdot] Volunteer interns and employers can still very much benefit from a ‘win win’ scenario and it is important to be confident that the role/tasks available are suitable to an unpaid arrangement.

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