By Kelli Tyler, CISR
Georgetown Insurance Service, Inc.
Silver Spring, MD
Volunteers play an important role in many organizations in both the nonprofit and for profit arenas. Have you thought about what happens if your company’s volunteer (such an unpaid intern), gets injured on the job, assaults an employee, or sues you for discrimination? Would your general liability insurance or workers’ comp cover your organization, or would you be left footing the bill?
According to a report released in 2016 by the United States Department of Labor, there were approximately 62.6 million people who volunteered through or for an organization between September 2014 and September 2015. Regardless of whether your company depends on volunteers to survive or only has an unpaid intern or two over the summer, you should know the limitations of your existing liability policies and have a clear volunteer screening and onboarding process in place.
Know Your Existing Policies
Insurance terminology is complex; knowing what phrasing and exclusions to look for can be exhausting. We recommend working with your agent to figure out exactly what your existing coverage for volunteers looks like and what you could do to strengthen it.
Most of the time, your average general business insurance will not include comprehensive coverage for volunteers. While some policies might define volunteers as insured, others will exclude them altogether.
It is also important to gauge what type of coverage your policies might offer. You should not only have coverage for the damage the volunteer may inflict, but also the damage that they themselves could suffer. Protecting yourself and protecting the volunteer are both equally important.
For charities and nonprofits, you should understand the limitations of the Volunteer Protection Act and not assume that you are home free. Plaintiffs can still allege negligence, indifference, and acts outside the scope of a volunteers’ responsibility.
Have A Clear Screening and Onboarding Policy in Place
Accidents can and will happen. While there is no way to prevent them all, you can take proactive steps to help minimize the risk. These steps could include:
- Have a prescribed screening process in place. You should make every effort to screen your volunteers like you would a potential employee. If they will be part of your team for any ongoing amount of time, you should consider conducting any appropriate checks (such as background and driving) as well as checking references.
- Educate them on your workplace policies. Long-term volunteers, particularly interns and anyone who is client or customer facing, should know and be expected to adhere to your company’s internal policies. These policies could include safe-driving, social media, and harassment.
- Clearly define their job role. Volunteers should have specific job duties and a written scope of work. They should know what they are doing and when they are expected to do it. They should also be careful not to overstep their role and provide assistance that is not in their job description. Since the Volunteer Protection Act only applies when the acts are within the scope of the volunteer’s responsibility it is important to take your time, as the employer, to define what exactly that responsibility is.
- Assign a supervisor. Not only do you need to have guidelines in place, you need to have someone to enforce those guidelines. Just because rules exist, doesn’t mean they will get followed. Having a supervisor for the volunteers to report to will help to keep them accountable and on task.
- Understand the DOL’s Internship Rules and Regulations. If you are hiring an unpaid intern read the DOL’s rules as outlined in the Fair Labor Standards Act. If you don’t follow these, you could find yourself on the receiving end of a lawsuit.
Having volunteers be a part of your organization can be a wonderful experience for all parties involved. However, as with all aspects of running an organization, liability lurks at every turn. Don’t assume that just because you aren’t paying them, you aren’t liable for them. This is one lesson you don’t want to learn the hard way.