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Volunteers and Workers’ Compensation

As a general proposition, states typically require employers to carry Workers’ Compensation insurance. The underlying rationale for such a requirement is to ensure that an injured employee is quickly compensated for medical bills and lost wages, regardless of fault. In return, the employer benefits as well, in that the employee generally relinquishes the right to sue the employer.

Workers’ Compensation Coverage Requirements for Volunteers

The Workers’ Compensation system is largely governed by state law. In most states, benefits are commonly reserved for employees and their families. Although some state laws define the term “employee” to include certain classes of volunteers (e.g., volunteer firefighters), most states do not. Rather, because they do not receive compensation, volunteers are generally not considered “employees.”

With the exception of a limited number of cases where the courts have found an employee relationship existed (e.g., where volunteers receive non-cash benefits, or where employers exert sufficient control over volunteers’ actions), most states do not require employers to carry Workers’ Compensation insurance coverage for volunteers.

Liability Exposure for Users of Volunteer Services

Many organizations, especially non-profit organizations, use and rely on volunteers. Although they are not required to maintain Workers’ Compensation coverage for volunteers, such organizations may nonetheless be liable to volunteers who are injured while performing services. In addition, these organizations may also be liable to third parties for volunteers’ acts or negligence. For example, the federal Volunteer Protection Act of 1997 may protect volunteers from liability for their acts or negligence, while leaving the organization liable to third parties.

Non-profit social service organizations often use volunteers to provide transportation for the elderly, disabled, etc., which can result in accidents. Volunteers at non-profit animal shelters are likely to be scratched and/or bitten. The economic advisability of coverage comparable to Workers’ Compensation coverage may thus be compelling, even where it is not required by law.

Insurance Coverage Options for Volunteers

  • “Volunteer Comp” Insurance: Employers and organizations may be able to add coverage for volunteers under existing Workers’ Compensation insurance, but the added premiums may be costly.
  • Accident Insurance: Since volunteers do not lose wages, coverage for volunteer accidents (but generally not illness) may be sufficient and less costly.
  • General Liability Insurance: Through a standard “additional injured” endorsement, coverage can be obtained for volunteers and to third parties injured by their actions at lower premium costs than for Workers’ Compensation coverage.
  • Health Care Insurance: Volunteers may be added to existing health insurance to cover illnesses.
  • Automobile Insurance: This ensures that volunteers have coverage if they drive a vehicle for the employer or organization
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