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So you’re thinking about using volunteers in your float center?

Before we clarify what a “volunteer” actually means, let’s explore why a float center would consider them in the first place. While it can be a great way to offer floats to people who are otherwise unable to pay, the impulse to bring in volunteers may also stem from a desire to get some sort of free labor (later in this post we’ll dive into why you can’t actually do this, but it’s important to recognize that the instinct is understandable, especially when you have someone lined up and willing to work in trade of float sessions).

In addition to a desired boost in overall productivity, having volunteers is also a way to invite more people into your center to experience what you do. Some customers actually want to help out and see what happens behind the scenes at a center. When people are that involved in a business, they tend to be stronger customers. 

Every for-profit business has a bottom line to consider, and labor is a huge portion of a float center’s expenses. In our Float Center Business Plan, we estimate that, depending on the number of tanks at your center, labor can account for 40-70% of your operating costs. It’s tempting from a bottom-line perspective to use volunteers, especially if you have people willing to “work for floats.”

Consider the impact on a 5 tank center…

For example, you’ll probably need at least 2 employees working at any given time (though some get by with 1 if they’re also working all hours). If that center is running floats from 7am to 11pm and paying their employees $15/hour, it’s incurring $480 daily in labor costs for those two people — that’s about $14,400 per month (not accounting for payroll expenses, possible insurance, and taxes).

Even if you only had “free labor” for 4 hours out of the 32 human hours spent daily working the center, that’s $1,800 saved in labor costs per month if that volunteer is supplanting a regular employee’s time (assuming 2 employees). That ends up being $21,600 per year. This kind of savings can become even more tempting if a float center is isn’t at an ideal capacity.

So, we get it…

 

With that said, it’s actually illegal to use volunteers at for-profit businesses – it’s in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act. If you’re having someone work at your center for floats, they’ll technically fall into the categories of an employee, an independent contractor, or even an internship.

Ok, let’s dive into what a “volunteer” actually is, which, after all, is what this article is all about.

In high school, I enjoyed opportunities to help play with local pre-schoolers and volunteered for El Niño landslide cleanup efforts. In college, I “volunteered” much less formally to help clean up after a certain suitemate left a certain faucet on, leaving me waking to rising water levels 3 hours later as I surveyed my moat-of-a-room from my now-soaked, floor level mattress.

The ideal volunteer experience occurs when you’re happy to lend a hand, when you feel enriched, and when receiving parties feel a benefit, too. When a need is met with a desire to help, a lot of things can go right – things can go wrong, as well.

Which is exactly what the Fair Labor Standards Act aims to protect against. The FLSA creates a bottom line that, at one extreme, stops slavery and wage manipulation. At a lesser extreme, it says that it is illegal for your friend (let’s call them Deborah or Dave) to help out at your center for 3 hours each Tuesday in exchange for some floats.

The FLSA defines a volunteer as someone who does work for a civic, charitable, or humanitarian reason, but this has to be for a public agency or a non-profit.


At for-profits businesses, it’s simple — it is illegal to have volunteers doing the work of someone who would otherwise be employed. If you would have paid someone to do a task, then it’s illegal.

Ultimately, if you knowingly or even unknowingly enter into a volunteer based contract with someone who is doing tasks at your center, you’re putting yourself in a position for legal trouble. If they get hurt on the job or interpersonal communication breaks down, you could experience fines or even lawsuits. 

If you have someone, like the previously mentioned hypothetical friend, Deborah or Dave, trying to volunteer their time in order get free floats, just tell them you’re not allowed to and ask them what they could barter in exchange. Maybe they do web design, or run a trampoline gym you can use for a work party, or knows a person who knows a person who is an electrician. If you can find (and document) a direct barter between your center and their services, then you’ve actually obtained something you need, they get their float, and you don’t cross any legal lines. Win-Win-Win. 

If you are able to arrange a sort of barter relationship, you’ve turned a potential lawsuit into a met need for your center and a passionate, word-of-mouth float evangelist. You’ve also increased your community in a mutually beneficial way. Yay bartering!

Even if volunteers were completely legal at for profit companies, there are some pitfalls to such a casual working relationship.

For starters, especially at a float center, it takes a lot of training to bring a shop employee up to speed with what, how, and why everything happens. The cost of mistakes with your expensive tanks and systems are high, and it probably isn’t worth the training for the extra help.

Also, you want to confidently expect a certain standard of reliability and professionalism from individuals working your center. If a volunteer doesn’t show up, this could put extra strain on your staff, creating issues in the shop. Ultimately, using volunteers incurs a surprising amount of risk that we suggest you avoid from both a practical and legal perspective.

The best advice we can give, if you have any questions about this, is to talk to your lawyer or human resource consultant. That said, when it comes to volunteers, the legal perspective is very clear — don’t do it. If someone is doing work for free, then it’s illegal, plain and simple. There is something that we have mentioned in a previous article that you might want to consider if floating people for as cheaply as possible is your goal… Educate those eager floaters through an internship!

 
 

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