Volunteerism can put practice at risk for violations of labor laws


Last month we discussed the pressure tactics parents, uncles, aunts and friends of young people can use on us as veterinary practitioners to arrange for their favorite youngster to come into our clinics and "observe."

Last month we discussed the pressure tactics parents, uncles, aunts and friends of young people can use on us as veterinary practitioners to arrange for their favorite youngster to come into our clinics and "observe."

Non-veterinarians look at their child or niece or whoever and think to themselves, "Jamie could learn so much by hanging around Dr. Pushover!" "It couldn't possibly be a problem for him if he would just let Jamie visit the clinic and help out a few times a week."

No problem, huh?

Try this for size: Jamie starts coming into the clinic because her mother, your very best breeder client, puts on the squeeze. Fifteen-year old Jamie "sort of" wants to be a veterinarian, but what she really wants to do is hang around your hospital and play with the animals. Jamie's a dullard of a girl and you and your staff constantly have to warn her to keep her hands to herself. Sure enough, though, within two weeks Jamie is at the emergency room having Chow-inflicted lacerations sutured on her petting hand.

Or this: Jamie is one heck of a worker. She listens to everyone's instructions and soaks up the workings of the profession like a sponge. Before you know it, she's answering the telephone, cleaning kennels and wiping blood off the X-ray room walls. Then, Trudy Tech gets into a fight with your new associate over some silly "power" thing and you have to fire Trudy.

The following week, the telephone rings and you answer it. "Yes, Mr. Poindexter…yes, it's always a pleasure to hear from our friends at the labor board. Jamie? Yes, she volunteers here. So, Trudy complained that Jamie's working illegally off the books and caused her to lose her job? Oh, no…well, yes she does sort of work here… W-2? Well, no, not exactly."

Many lawyers and insurance adjusters would tell you that problems such as these are just the tip of the iceberg. They would be right. They probably would also tell you that as a result, you should never, ever let volunteer helpers work in or around your practice.

Tip of the iceberg

That would be the easy answer, but it surely wouldn't do much to offer the next generation of veterinarians and veterinary technicians much of an opportunity to find out if the field is truly right for them.

Isn't there some reasonable middle ground? Isn't there some practical way to get high school and college students into your workplace to familiarize them with what is actually involved with being a veterinarian (long hours, late nights, constant fear of liability; you know, the good stuff)?

I submit that it can be done, and that it should be done. Here are some practical suggestions that I will preface this way: Before you follow any of my suggestions, discuss the details of your precise circumstances thoroughly with your insurance agent and/or carrier, your lawyer and perhaps even your tax accountant.

As was mentioned previously, unpaid volunteers fall into a legal category that can be potentially problematic. Volunteers are not customers or clients, yet they are not employees. They are not service suppliers, and they are not salespeople. They are, in fact, persons on your premises who contribute nothing of actual value to the operation of the commercial enterprise. Consequently, no one wants to pay if a volunteer gets hurt, particularly if the injury occurs under questionable circumstances.

Separate legal category

If a client stands on a chair to reach a product and falls, general liability insurance covers it. If a worker does the same, workers' compensation will take care of the claim without an argument.

If Jamie the volunteer gets hurt in this way, general liability insurance will eventually cover it, but probably not without a fight - a fight with you and with your workers' compensation carrier. (Insurance companies are like little kids, they want lots of cookies, but always want someone else to take the blame if something naughty happens.)

So, how can you keep a Jamie from making it tough for you to renew your general liability policy or triggering a field audit from your workers' compensation carrier?

Simple, you have to hire Jamie.

Hire the volunteer

In many states, children as young as 14 can obtain working documents for employment for a limited number of hours a week and for work at certain times of the day. Once such a child is hired, it is generally considered that any accident or claim that occurs on your premises (unless she was there for some entirely different purpose such as bringing her cat in for shots) will be covered by workers' compensation.

And such claims should be covered. Workers' compensation premiums are based on the insurer's "eyes wide open" awareness of what can reasonably happen to a person working in an animal hospital.

It is understood, also, that workers don't always dart out the door the instant that they clock out. It is understood, also, that workers slip and fall in the parking lot before they clock in. In short, hiring a volunteer, even for a limited amount of time each week, is the safest way to assure that any injury they suffer will be fully and appropriately compensated.

There are generally no specific provisions in most workers' compensation laws that discontinue coverage once an employee's shift ends.

If an employee is hurt in the workplace, and the employee was not doing some task well outside of his or her covered job category, their injury is likely to be compensated by workers' compensation insurance.

Therefore, Jamie can be scheduled to work as a kennel person on a very limited part-time basis. Then, if she stays late to watch now and then, a bite that occurs off the clock probably won't be a major problem.

Scheduling Jamie for real work hours on real work days offers you, as a supervisor, another desirable advantage. You can make it clear that Jamie is only allowed to come into the hospital on the days she is scheduled to work.

Consider scheduling too

You can be free from having to worry about what she is getting into except on the days you select. If she is causing a supervision problem, just cut her hours back; more than likely she will get the message.

This is much easier than having to call Jamie's mother and tell her that her daughter is a brat and is barred from your clinic for life. (By blaming it on the workers' compensation carrier, you won't have to take a chance on losing all that fabulously lucrative tail-docking business mom so generously provides.)

Putting a volunteer on the payroll also solves the labor-law problem while giving your staff some much-needed leverage over the kid. If you have ever actually taken on an unpaid volunteer, you probably know what I am getting at. Volunteers have a habit of feeling completely free and independent; they like to show up when they feel like it and leave with equal flexibility. They often get in the kennel staff's way when they are trying to clean and in the surgery technician's way when operations are going on.

"Volunteers" who are actually gainfully employed have a much more innate sense of obligation to do as they are told by the boss and by co-workers with more training and longer experience.

Sense of obligation

Such part-time helpers listen better and are more accountable for mistakes and oversights. Amazingly, this level of discipline seems to pour over into the time that they are "staying late unpaid."

This is good for the business because such persons are more likely to follow instructions regarding keeping fingers out of cages, not touching animals when they are off-duty and coming into the surgery suite only when they are invited.

Finally, it is obvious that a helper who is "on the books" does not place you or your practice at risk of being accused of labor-law violations. If the observer is working a little and watching a lot, there may well come a time when the experience gained on the job makes the "observing time" as useful to the business as it is to the observer. This is the point at which you can, and should, add on to Jamie's hours. If she is actually helping out on her time off and not just learning, she should be compensated. That is the law and that is how it should be.

In my experience, it is these observers who quickly leave the realm of observation and enter the world of virtual indispensability who end up making the most awesome veterinarians and veterinary technicians.

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