Receipt of Perks Does Not Undermine “Volunteer” Status Under FLSA

Taking a “commonsense” approach, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit held that volunteers’ mere receipt of certain “perks” does not convert them to employees under the FLSA. In Adams v. Palm Beach County (11th Cir. March 12, 2024), volunteer attendants at a public golf course were allowed to play golf at substantially discounted rates. The attendants alleged that their receipt of the golf discount benefit constituted a form of “compensation” that undermined their “volunteer” status under the FLSA and Florida law, rendering them eligible for minimum wage. The Eleventh Circuit disagreed.  

The attendants relied on the fact that the FLSA excludes from its definition of covered “employee” any individual who volunteers to perform services for a public agency, but only if the individual receives no compensation or is paid expenses, reasonable benefits, or a nominal fee. 29 U.S.C. § 203(e)(4)(A). Similarly, Department of Labor regulations provide that a volunteer is an “individual who performs hours of service for a public agency for civic, charitable, or humanitarian reasons, without promise, expectation or receipt of compensation for services rendered.” 29 C.F.R. § 553.101(a).

The Eleventh Circuit held that the attendants’ receipt of discounts to play golf at public courses in Palm Beach County did not constitute “compensation” sufficient to trigger the loss of their volunteer status. The court opined that, as a matter of economic reality, the reduced-fee access to the golf clubs could not be considered anything more than a perk of volunteering. While certain in-kind benefits may constitute “wages in another form” (and thus qualify as “compensation” sufficient to undermine volunteer status), such benefits are usually in the form of goods and services that could substitute for wages under the economic reality test of employment (e.g., food, shelter, clothing, transportation, and medical benefits).

After concluding that the attendants were not promised, could not have reasonably expected, and did not receive any “compensation” for their services, the Eleventh Circuit held that the attendants satisfied the other indicia of “volunteers” under the FLSA and Florida law. For example, the attendants chose to serve in positions they knew were crucial to providing civic benefits to County citizens. Accordingly, the attendees were volunteers and ineligible for protection under the minimum wage provisions of the FLSA and Florida law. Adopting the attendants’ reasoning that the discount constituted “compensation” for their services could have deterred public agencies and non-profit enterprises from acknowledging volunteer service with even modest perks. The Eleventh Circuit’s commonsense decision is therefore welcome news for such organizations that rely on volunteers. 

Information contained in this publication is intended for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice or opinion, nor is it a substitute for the professional judgment of an attorney.