Employing voluntary staff
Many businesses take on volunteers but it is important to recognise that there are advantages and disadvantages of employing volunteers.
This guide looks at how you can avoid common pitfalls and ensure that you get the most out of your volunteers.
Advantages and disadvantages of employing volunteers
Many not-for-profit organisations benefit from taking on volunteers, eg to serve on committees, raise funds, create websites or databases, and deliver mailshots.
Other businesses may offer work experience or secondment opportunities to help build links with local communities or within their industry, or to help attract potential recruits.
Volunteers can be motivated and flexible. It's also cost-efficient to use volunteers providing they are suitable for the task or role.
Employing volunteers - considerations
However, before taking on a volunteer you should consider:
- Whether your organisation has a suitable vacancy for the volunteer.
- The need for inductions and, possibly, task-specific training.
- What workspace the volunteer will need. Try to minimise disruption and demands on paid staff.
- In the absence of pay/benefits, the need to make them feel recognised, involved and appreciated.
- Their need to work flexibly. Think about the needs of paid staff and whether you can adopt across-the-board flexibility.
- The fact that, as an employer, you have a similar duty of care on health and safety issues to volunteers as to employees - see volunteers and health and safety.
Volunteers will need managing. Therefore, you could give a paid member of staff responsibility for co-ordinating volunteers and their training and supervision. This will help avoid friction between volunteers and paid workers.
You should consult volunteers on the level of involvement they would like, eg in meetings or discussion groups.
You do not have to get an AccessNI check for volunteers unless they are working with children or vulnerable adults in a 'regulated' or care position such as a care home or a school, or in an occupation/position covered by the Rehabilitation of Offenders (Exceptions) Order (NI) 1979.
For more information, see AccessNI criminal records checks.
What volunteers are entitled to
Avoid creating a situation where a volunteer might consider themselves a worker or employee
Individuals who are genuinely volunteers have no employment rights but may still be able to claim state benefits and/or allowances.
There have been cases where volunteers have succeeded in claiming to be a worker or even an employee. It is important to be aware of this because workers benefit from certain statutory employment rights, eg the right to receive the national minimum wage, while employees benefit from the full range of such rights including unlawful discrimination.
Therefore, when you take on a volunteer, any agreement you have with them must be worded so that the volunteer is clear that it is not a contract of employment, eg the agreement must not suggest that you and the volunteer have any obligations towards each other or that it is a contract for services.
Instead you should:
- Give the individual a volunteer agreement and role description in writing.
- Not promise anything in return for the volunteer's work.
However, as part of the agreement, you may:
- Give a volunteer relevant training.
- Give relevant supervision.
- Reimburse actual expenses a volunteer incurs when volunteering, eg travel. Be careful though, as meal vouchers, for example, count as payment in kind for the purposes of jobseeker's allowance.
Note that you should never give a volunteer a gift or reward other than in an isolated case.
Volunteers and the national minimum wage (NMW)
For the purposes of the NMW legislation, volunteers are not workers and are therefore not entitled to be paid the NMW.
However, you must ensure that the individual is genuinely a volunteer, ie that it's not possible for them to claim they are - in fact - a worker.
Voluntary workers are a category of worker specifically exempt for being entitled to the NMW.
For more information on volunteers, voluntary workers and the NMW, see National Minimum Wage and National Living Wage - volunteers and voluntary workers.
State benefits and allowances available to volunteers
Volunteers may continue to be eligible for benefits and allowances such as jobseeker's allowance or disability living allowance. See volunteering while on benefits.
Those receiving Jobseeker's Allowance will need to attend meetings at their Jobs and Benefits office, and your organisation will need to accommodate these visits.
You have no duty to inform the benefits office who is volunteering - this is for the individual volunteer to decide.
Volunteers and health and safety
Organisations staffed entirely by volunteers aren't required to carry out a risk assessment. However, it may be difficult to demonstrate that you have fulfilled your duty of care if you don't.
The legal obligations for the health and safety of volunteers are:
- a general duty of care to avoid causing injury
- a duty to ensure that people not in your employment, and who may be affected by your operations, are not exposed to health and safety risks
It is good practice to treat volunteers with the same consideration for health and safety as you would treat paid staff.
Employing young volunteers
It's common for businesses to use young volunteers for part-time volunteering or for volunteering during school holidays.
There are no specific restrictions on volunteering by young people in not-for-profit organisations. However, you should follow the working-time rules that apply to regular employees.
You should ensure that young people are afforded protection. You can also download Volunteer Now's guidance on involving under 18s as volunteers (PDF, 262K).
Volunteers and voluntary workers are not entitled to the NMW - see National Minimum Wage and National Living Wage - volunteers and voluntary workers.
Insurance for young people
If you use volunteers who are under 16, you must ensure that your employer's liability and public liability insurance policies cover young workers and volunteers under the age of 16.
Volunteers and tax requirements
You may ask for a dispensation from HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) not to report expenses or benefits that are not taxable - this would include expenses paid to volunteers for carrying out volunteering for your business.
The dispensation also means that the expenses or benefits do not count as earnings for NIC purposes. Expenses and benefits for employers.
Emergency Volunteering Leave
A new, temporary, statutory right is available for eligible workers to take Emergency Volunteering Leave to help the Health and Social Care system in response to the Coronavirus outbreak.
Suitably skilled and/or experienced workers will be able to take Emergency Volunteering Leave in blocks of two, three or four weeks during any sixteen-week volunteering period.
The Emergency Volunteering Leave is unpaid; however, a compensation scheme will be set up to compensate eligible emergency volunteers for some loss of income and expenses incurred.
The eligible worker must have been certified by an appropriate authority to act as an emergency volunteer in health or social care. In Northern Ireland, the appropriate authorities are:
- the Department of Health;
- a Regional Health and Social Care Board; and
- a Health and Social Care trust.
To avail of the Emergency Volunteering Leave, eligible workers must give their employer at least three working days' notice and the certificate provided by the appropriate authority.
Except for those organisations and workers that are exempt, there is no provision for employers to refuse leave, for example, because of operational need.
Employment rights and benefits
During Emergency Volunteering Leave, workers will still be entitled to the benefit of all of their terms and conditions of employment which would have applied if they had not been absent - except for terms and conditions relating to remuneration. The period of absence will be deemed not to have any effect on their pension or benefit entitlements.
Emergency volunteers have the statutory right to return to the job they were in before taking Emergency Volunteering Leave and on terms and conditions that are no less favourable than those which would have applied if they hadn't been absent.
In addition, volunteers will have the right not to be subjected to a detriment or dismissal on the grounds of taking Emergency Volunteering Leave.
Exemptions to the statutory right to Emergency Volunteering Leave
The following organisations and workers are exempt from the statutory right to Emergency Volunteering Leave:
- micro-businesses (those with 10 or fewer employees)
- Crown employees
- military personnel
- the police
- NI Assembly and commission staff