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| 3 minutes read

Muddying the waters of volunteer status

Volunteers are the lifeblood of many charitable organisations.  

Those organisations could not exist without them, but neither could they exist and pay them. So, there must be clarity when it comes to their status as volunteers. A lack of clarity in a recent Employment Appeal Tribunal decision involving the Coastguard Rescue Service resulted in a finding that a volunteer was in fact a worker. 

Key takeaway point

  • Documentation such as volunteer handbooks confirming that no employment status exists between volunteer and organisation is important BUT practices which reflect a worker/employer relationship will negate such statements. Actions do speak louder than words!

Volunteer status

Volunteers may be hard-working, loyal and crucial to your organisation, however, as volunteers they have no employment rights. They may have a volunteers’ agreement, but no employment contract. There will be no expectation for them to continue to volunteer and likewise, there will be no expectation for the organisation to provide them with tasks. There will be no expectation of payment other than expenses. All sounds clear, however, once those absolutes start to move the clarity of the volunteer status starts to get muddier. 

Case details

It’s apt to talk of muddy waters given our case concerns the Coastguard Rescue Service (CRS). Mr Groom was one of 3,500 volunteers with the CRS; he volunteered as a Coastguard Rescue Officer from 1985 until September 2020.  The CRS provided some documentation for their volunteers.

  • A Volunteer Agreement – this clearly stated in the introduction that Coastguard Rescue Officers (CROs) were volunteers and not paid.
  • Code of Conduct – this outlined the standards that were required of CROs, confirming that failure to meet those standards would result in their membership of the CRS being cancelled.  The Code of Conduct again confirmed their volunteer status. 
  • A separate document entitled ‘Coastguard Rescue Service – Detail Coastguard Rescue Officer Remuneration’ outlined that CROS could ‘claim remuneration for time, travel and expenses associated with specific activities undertaken whilst on authorised duty…' Another section addressed ‘remuneration claims’ and applies to hourly rate remuneration.

This last document caused the most interest. It is well accepted that volunteers can claim expenses so that they are no worse off financially because of their volunteering.  But there is no entitlement to payment for volunteering. However, this document outlined how CROs could be paid at an hourly rate for carrying out certain activities. They didn’t have to claim this remuneration, but it was there if they wanted it. Furthermore, when a CRO left, they received a P45 and a P60 at the end of each year of volunteering. 

The tribunal held that despite this payment, the CROs were volunteers; there was not a contract of employment, no automatic right to remuneration and some CROs didn’t request it. The EAT did not agree with this. They upheld Mr Groom’s appeal noting that a contract of employment came into existence each time a CRO undertook specific activities for which they could be paid. The Code of Conduct outlined the level of service they should provide doing those activities and so, the EAT concluded, there was a personal agreement for services not a general right to reimbursement of expenses. They did not address whether an umbrella contract existed in between the activities. 

Key learning points

  • Beware the practices going on behind the documentation – ensure that the narrative outlined in the documentation mirrors what happens in reality.  Confirming volunteer status in words but then placing expectations on volunteers, paying them for services carried out etc. will negate any statements regardless of how many times they may be repeated. 
  • Do not refer to remuneration in documentation – confirm that payment is for expenses only and then on the provision of receipts. Ensure that you have a clear expenses policy and that it is followed so as to ensure clarity and consistency. 
  • If you want to ‘honour’ volunteers who have served your organisation faithfully for years, consider carefully how you want to do that. Financial gifts in appreciation of a volunteer’s work would be problematic as it is likely to be perceived (by either HMRC or the volunteer, should the relationship sour) as a payment for services, which blurs the lines between them being a volunteer and a worker who is entitled to national minimum wage and other worker rights. Another non-monetary way to express thanks is preferable. The value of any gift would need to be minimal and in the charity’s best interest. A card expressing genuine thanks, flowers, cake or chocolates are examples of appropriate gifts but there are more, and more may be appropriate after 20 long years of volunteering!

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employment status, worker, employees, volunteer agreement, charities, education, health and social care, housing, social business