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, but can also include tuition payments, books or supplies, reimbursement for personal expense, or 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.
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 U.S. Department of Labor distinguishes between volunteer activities at non-profit or public sector organizations and unpaid internships with for-profit private employers. 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.
However, unpaid work or internships with private sector for-profit employers is more strictly defined. Both employers and trainees should use care to determine whether a volunteer activity meets the Department of Labor criteria for unpaid training or internship. In general, the training program 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 trainee, without advantages to employer
- Finite training period, with no promise of a future job offer
To protect yourself, you should 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: Internship Programs Under The Fair Labor Standards Act.