In the season 4 episode of The Office titled “Fun Run,” the character of Michael Scott (the Regional Manager of the fictional company Dunder Mifflin Inc., played by Steve Carell), accidentally hits his employee, Meredith, with his car, sending her to the hospital. Feeling guilty, Michael organizes a charity 5K in an attempt to get some good karma. He calls the 5k “Michael Scott’s Dunder Mifflin Scranton Meredith Palmer Memorial Celebrity Rabies Awareness Pro-Am Fun Run Race for the Cure,” and insists that the entire office participate in the race. Not surprisingly, the 5k is a disaster and ends with Michael himself being sent to the hospital.
This raises the question: do employees need to be compensated for their participation in volunteer and charity events hosted by their employers? Under federal law, time spent volunteering outside of an employee’s normal working hours need not be paid. However, the employee’s participation must be truly voluntary. If the employee faces some kind of penalty for declining to participate, or if they are guaranteed a bonus for their participation, then their volunteer time should be considered “hours worked.”
Additionally, the U.S. Dept. of Labor has issued guidance which states that although employees must be paid for volunteer time if they are guaranteed a bonus for participation, employers can use their volunteer work as a factor to consider when calculating their bonus, if all of the following conditions are met:
- Their volunteer work is optional
- The employee will not face adverse action if they don’t participate
- The employee is not guaranteed a bonus for volunteering
Bottom line: employees don’t need to be paid for volunteer work as long as it is truly voluntary. In the case of The Office, there can be no doubt that the employees’ participation was not voluntary. Despite Michael’s insistence that everyone participate in the race, his staff is less than enthusiastic in their participation (characters Stanley and Creed take taxis to the finish line, and Jim and Pam take a detour to go shopping). Given their resistance, the office’s participation in this event could not be considered voluntary, and it would be considered “hours worked” under the Fair Labor Standards Act. If Michael refused to pay his employees for their participation in the 5k, he would have found himself in hot water. Of course, this would be nothing new for Michael Scott.