“Spiritual coercion,” “volunteers” and children under federal wage laws
Two recent decisions by the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals address the applicability of federal labor laws to church volunteers. The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) is the nation’s leading wage-hour law. FLSA requires a minimum wage, overtime pay and prohibits child labor. FLSA applies only to “employees.” Volunteers are generally not considered to be “employees;” therefore, FLSA generally does not apply to volunteers. These two recent cases addressed these concepts in the context of church volunteers.
One case was decided by the Sixth Circuit, Acosta v. Cathedral Buffet, Inc. It involved a restaurant, operated by a church, on the church’s campus, that was open to the public and staffed in part by church volunteers.
The other case was decided by the Tenth Circuit, Acosta v. Paragon Contractors Corp. It involved a pecan ranch, at which church members, including children, harvested pecans.
In both cases, the Courts held the businesses were commercial enterprises subject to FLSA, and that the church members were doing work. Thus both courts were called to decide if the church members were truly volunteering their time, such that FLSA did not apply to their work. Both courts looked to a 1985 Supreme Court decision, Alamo Foundation, where the Supreme Court held that a volunteer is, among other things, someone who works “without promise or expectation of compensation” and “for his own personal purpose or pleasure.” And, there, the Courts split. The Sixth Circuit held that the church members were volunteers, and the Tenth Circuit held they were not.
Why did the Courts split? The Sixth Circuit decided its case after the Tenth Circuit, and it held that the difference was because (a) the Tenth Circuit case involved children and (b) the Tenth Circuit case involved more than “spiritual coercion.”
Under Alamo Foundation, a worker cannot be held a “volunteer” if his work is coerced. A person who is coerced into working is not working purely “for his own personal purpose or pleasure.” The Sixth Circuit held that, in the Cathedral Buffet case, the workers, who were adults, were working because they felt it was expected of them to be “faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.” The Sixth Circuit held that, even if such religious dogma was considered to be coercive, it is “spiritual coercion,” and as such insufficient to transform a volunteer into an “employee” under FLSA. However, the Court held that in the Tenth Circuit’s case, the workers were children and, further, in its own case, the Tenth Circuit highlighted facts suggesting more than mere spiritual coercion. For example, the Tenth Circuit pointed to evidence, including “one child (who) stated that if she had not worked, she would have lost her family and been kicked out of the community.”
Non-profits that benefit from the work of volunteers, especially church-related non-profits, should carefully review these two new cases.
Source: Acosta v. Cathedral Buffet, Inc., case no. 17–3427 (6th Cir. 4/16/18); Acosta v. Paragon Contractors Corp., case no. 17-4025 (10th Cir. 5/13/18).