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Employment Definitions: Work Versus Volunteer

The International Services Office (ISO) has outlined some of the differences between working and volunteering. If you have any questions or doubt about your activities, please contact us so we can help.

Definition of Work

Any activity may be considered employment when work is performed or a service is provided in exchange for some benefit to the individual. This covers compensation in the form of:

  • Actual wages
  • Tuition payments
  • Books or supplies
  • Reimbursement for personal expense
  • Other benefits

This definition is very broad. As a result, if you are not certain whether an activity would be considered employment, it is best to discuss your situation with an ISO advisor in advance. Even if you are not going to be paid, you may be able to request written authorization as a protection.

Definition of Volunteer Activities

Most volunteer opportunities do not require work permission, provided the activity is not something that the organization or company would normally pay someone to do.

The US Department of Labor distinguishes between volunteer activities at nonprofit or public sector organizations and unpaid internships with for-profit private employers.

Volunteer Activities at Nonprofit or Public-Sector Organizations

In general, volunteer activities for religious, charitable, civic or humanitarian purposes are permitted through state or local governments and non-profit agencies. Under these conditions, individuals may volunteer their time and services freely without anticipation of compensation.

Unpaid Work, Training, or Internships at For-Profit, Private-Sector Organizations

Unpaid work or internships with private sector, for-profit employers or organizations is more strictly defined than with nonprofits or the public sector. Both employers and trainees should carefully determine whether a volunteer activity meets the US Department of Labor criteria for unpaid training or internship.

In general, an unpaid training program or internship must meet the following conditions:

  • Mutual understanding of no payment or other compensation
  • Does NOT replace a paid worker or usually pay for similar work
  • Educational environment, under close supervision
  • Primary benefit to the trainee, without advantages to the employer
  • Finite training period, with no promise of a future job offer

To protect yourself: Request a letter from the company or organization stating that your work there is on a volunteer basis and that these conditions are satisfied.

If these training criteria are not met, you should obtain employment authorization to avoid a potential violation of status. Please discuss this option with an ISO advisor.

For more detailed information, please reference the Department of Labor’s Fact Sheet #71 titled “Internship Programs Under The Fair Labor Standards Act.