The old adage is true: There’s no such thing as a free lunch – and you also can’t use that lunch as payment for employees, even if it’s on a volunteer basis.
One location of a popular fast-food franchise learned that the hard way after a promotional opportunity it offered customers went viral recently.
A Chick-fil-A restaurant in Henderson, NC, made a now-deleted Facebook post looking for “volunteers” to help speed up traffic in the drive-thru line during peak hours.
Multiple news outlets, including the Washington Post and People magazine, quoted the post as saying “We are looking for volunteers for our new Drive Thru Express! Earn 5 free entrees per shift (1 hr) worked. Message us for details.”
This quickly caused a stir, but for all the wrong reasons. Commenters ridiculed the restaurant for offering such a program and questioned its legality. The restaurant defended the program by saying it was volunteer-only, not a full-time job. It had similar promotions in the past, and those who signed up enjoyed it “and have done it multiple times.”
However, due to the backlash, the Chick-fil-A restaurant eventually announced that it was ending the program, with no plans to advertise it again.
Legal guidelines for volunteers
This might have been a good move, since the restaurant’s defense wouldn’t likely keep it from scrutiny under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). On the Dept. of Labor’s website, the agency discusses volunteer work and the circumstances where volunteers do and don’t have to be paid for their time.
The FLSA is straightforward: People may not volunteer their services to for-profit private sector employers. While people can volunteer for public-sector organizations, if they’re employees of these organizations, the employer can’t let them volunteer additional time to do the same work they’re already employed to perform. This still counts as hours worked, and they must be paid for their time.
In most other cases, volunteers can offer services for public service, religious or humanitarian purposes. Typically, these organizations are already nonprofits, such as civic organizations, youth programs and church groups.
Ultimately, if a for-profit company solicits volunteers to do unpaid work that it’s already paying employees for, it’s likely a wage and hour violation under the FLSA. Even if volunteers commit to the work freely and “enjoy” it, that doesn’t excuse an employer’s legal obligation to pay them in actual wages – not free meals.