A landmark ruling came from the 6th Circuit Court this week from Bryson v. Middlefield Volunteer Fire Department. This ruling explored the implications of Title VII, specifically those sections that dealt with the rights of an employee during termination. In this case, the issue before the court was the matter of whether or not a volunteer could be considered an employee.
In the ruling, the 6th Circuit Court concluded that volunteers were the same as employees, and therefore had the same rights guaranteed to employees in regards to discrimination. According to the judge, the lack of payment to the volunteers gave them a lack of control over their circumstances. This made them a class that was in need of protection, and therefore covered by Title VII.
It is very important to note that this ruling only applies to a very limited set of circumstances. In other court cases, it has been established that volunteers are unable to be treated as employees because their lack of pay means that the organization has no control over their term of service. In other words, if an organization cannot control who arrives and starts to work, then they should not be held to the same standard in the event that a volunteer is asked to leave. If every non-profit organization had to treat their volunteers as employees, they would be open to lawsuits that would effectively undermine or stop the work that many of them accomplish.
In the case of the fire department, there were several established procedures that potential volunteers had to go through, including fitness and other testing. That, coupled with the fact that these positions are often used as stepping stones to paid employment, caused the judge to rule that these volunteers should be treated as employees in the eyes of the law.