Employment Lawyers in Philadelphia: Employee Discrimination Protection for Volunteers

A recent case presented to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit brought attention to the issue of what differentiates a volunteer from an employee for the purposes of protection from employment discrimination under Title VII. The case of Sister Michael Marie, et al. v. American Red Cross, involved two Catholic nuns who had been dismissed from their positions as volunteers for the Red Cross and the Ohio Ross County Emergency Management Agency. The two Sisters who belonged to the Order of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart filed a charge of religious discrimination, retaliation, and harassment against the organizations.

The Sisters claimed that they had been passed over for promotions that they had been expecting, and when they questioned the matter, they were promptly dismissed. An independent investigation turned up a prejudicial email, as well as an admission by Red Cross personnel, that mistakes had been made and the Sisters were qualified for a promotion.

Under Title VII, employees are protected from discrimination in the workplace based on race discrimination, religion, sex discrimination, and national origin. The term “employee” is defined as an individual employed by an employer. The circularity of this definition was the main topic of debate in this case. For the Sisters to be protected under Title VII, they had to prove that their status qualified them as employees.

In 2011, a precedent was set on this matter in Bryson v. Middlefield Volunteer Fire Department. In this case, the court decided that a volunteer could be considered an employee under certain conditions, even if they are not paid. These conditions relate directly to things such as the amount of control the employer has over the manner and the means by which the work is performed.

In the Sisters’ case, the court elaborated on the definition of employee by pointing out that an employer’s ability to terminate an employee is perhaps their greatest source of control, because of the economic consequences faced by the employee upon termination. In the case of an unpaid volunteer, an employer has little leverage in which to control the volunteer’s performance.

The Sisters argued that although they did not receive traditional remuneration in the form of a regular salary, medical or dental benefits, they did receive benefits from their participation with the Red Cross. They pointed to their Workers’ Compensation insurance eligibility, liability insurance for injuries sustained during service, educational and networking opportunities, possibility for promotions, increased standing in the community, opportunities for grants, and access to opportunities to serve.

The court decided against the Sisters, stating that the majority of these benefits were speculative and insufficient to warrant remuneration in this case. Further, because the Sisters had exercised considerable discretion and flexibility in how and when they volunteered, it could not be argued that their employers had control over the manner or means in which the work was performed.

The precedent that this case sets, that a lack of traditional payment will likely prove lack of employers’ control, will weigh heavily on future cases that call to question a volunteer’s status as an employee and their right to protection under Title VII.

To learn more about discrimination in the workplace or other matters related to employment law, contact the Philadelphia employment lawyers at the Ezold Law Firm, P.C. at 610-660-5585 or submit an online contact form. We represent employees who face discriminatory practices at work.