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"Supplementing or Supplanting?" The Mystery of "Volunteer" versus "Paid Employee" Right to Work

"Supplementing or Supplanting?" The Mystery of "Volunteer" versus "Paid Employee" Right to Work

If there were a Ten Commandments of Volunteer Management, one of them would surely be the statement "volunteers should supplement, not supplant, paid staff." Drilled firmly into the head of every new volunteer manager is the fact that staff support is dependent upon relieving fears of replacement by hordes of unpaid volunteers and accordingly work done by volunteers should never impinge upon or threaten the jobs of paid staff.

Now, neither Steve nor Susan is opposed to paid staff keeping their jobs, so please don't interpret what follows as an attack upon full employment.

But both of us have always been puzzled by how this seemingly simple phrase gets interpreted and what in real life it actually means.

Consider the following:....

If there were a Ten Commandments of Volunteer Management, one of them would surely be the statement "volunteers should supplement, not supplant, paid staff." Drilled firmly into the head of every new volunteer manager is the fact that staff support is dependent upon relieving fears of replacement by hordes of unpaid volunteers and accordingly work done by volunteers should never impinge upon or threaten the jobs of paid staff.

Now, neither Steve nor Susan is opposed to paid staff keeping their jobs, so please don't interpret what follows as an attack upon full employment.

But both of us have always been puzzled by how this seemingly simple phrase gets interpreted and what in real life it actually means.

Consider the following:

Volunteer Versus Paid Work
The most rigid interpretation of the "supplement, not supplant" doctrine is the notion that there are some types of work that are appropriate for volunteers and some types of work that are only appropriate for paid staff. Volunteers thus supplement staff by performing volunteer tasks, leaving staff to perform tasks more appropriate to those who receive a salary.

Before you regard this interpretation as far-fetched, you might note that this kind of logic (using that word in a loose sense) is precisely that which sometimes gets applied in interpreting the Fair Labor Standards Act in the United States. Note the following from Wage and Hour Administration Fact Sheet No. 031, "Nursing Care Facilities under the Fair Labor Standards Act":

Individuals not otherwise employed by the facility who volunteer - without expectation of pay - to attend to the comfort of nursing home residents in a manner not otherwise provided by the facility are not considered employees under the FLSA. However, individuals (including residents) who perform work of any consequential economic benefit to the facility are employees and entitled to FLSA minimum wage and overtime. (www.dol.gov/dol/esa/public/regs/compliance/whd/whdfs31.htm)

From which one can only draw two conclusions:

  • Volunteers shouldn't engage in any activities similar to those being done by paid staff; and

  • the work done by volunteers shouldn't be of value to the facility.

Before you panic about living under these requirements, you might note that the same Department of Labor which enforces the above, and the US Supreme Court, have also announced on numerous occasions that in no way do they want to prevent people from volunteering their services and that, generally speaking, labor laws and regulations do not apply to bona fide volunteers.

This explains why in the real world you can find any type of work imaginable being performed both by paid and unpaid staff, quite frequently in the same organization. The work, frankly, doesn't care whether you're paid, unpaid, or underpaid. Or, as Susan once eloquently put it: "'Volunteer' is a pay grade, not a job description."

Fear of legal liability is also behind the advice of many lawyers to avoid the term "volunteer job description." The theory being that if we don't call the assignment a "job," no one will see it as threatening to employees (nor a promise of future compensation). But isn't it still work? Does this demarcation between employee and volunteer functions value volunteering or does it place volunteers on the periphery, doing nice but not essential roles?

If you want to see examples of policies in different countries determining the interrelationship of paid and volunteer workers, click here.

Displacing Staff: One Perspective
Another interpretation of the doctrine of supplement-not-supplant is that organizations should not be allowed to "save" money by utilizing unpaid labor instead of maintaining paid staffing levels. This means both not recruiting volunteers to replace paid staff if budgets are cut and also not hiring new staff in the first place because volunteers are already doing the work well.

Most people (including us) have some sympathy for this view - people need paid employment to maintain themselves.

At the same time, this viewpoint has some philosophical difficulties.

The first question is: Why are all paid jobs sacrosanct? Blind adherence to the principle that no job should ever be eliminated has led us to some pretty ridiculous labor roadblocks. Maintaining coal shovellers on electrified trains is perhaps the most glaring example. Too often we get embroiled in the issue of full employment for all who wish to work (a position we support) and forget that the most pertinent issue is whether the particular job under discussion is necessary or fundable.

The labor union perspective is rooted in the context of for-profit businesses, where employers could be accused of lining their own and stockholders' pockets while employees - those who actually did the work - received low wages and no job security. But the nonprofit and government environments are different in a variety of ways. First, no one is personally profiting from the labor of employees (not to be confused with some executives earning enormous salaries) nor does any private owner benefit from budget-cutting lay-offs. Second, while external constraints may require cutbacks (less tax revenue, not getting a grant), the community need may continue or even increase.

It gets even more complicated when we consider the fact that the "owners" of government are the taxpayers, which even include those employees who hold government jobs. The model is really one of "profit sharing." When government is fiscally responsible, everyone's taxes are well used. Who exactly benefits and who loses if a labor union demands that government workers be employed regardless of the tax consequences? Are taxpayers wrong to want to find ways to limit taxation - and, if they are willing to volunteer their time in lieu of taxes, is this not a reasonable alternative (providing they can offer the needed skills at the times they are required)?

Is the goal of a nonprofit or government agency to keep people employed or to provide needed services with the funds available?

Displacing Volunteers: Another Perspective
Suppose we posit that those now in paid jobs have the right to maintain the paid status of those types of jobs. Should we also stipulate that the reverse is true? That volunteers have a right to their positions and shouldn't be replaced by paid staff? That all jobs now performed by volunteers should hereafter be reserved for volunteers?

This discussion, by the way, is far from an abstract concern. The biggest debate in the firefighting community in the United States is to what extent we preserve the primarily volunteer nature of firefighting brigades in small communities as opposed to moving toward "professional" firefighters (and we'll ignore the loaded nature of that particular descriptive adjective).

Other entities are facing similar discussions. Steve Clark, in writing about the Appalachian Trail Conference (http://www.appalachiantrail.org), a group formed and originally staffed by volunteers, writes about the changes that are implicit when paid staff began to take over the functions that were historically performed by volunteers:

Every time a task or the work of the Trail is shifted from volunteers to professionals, the ability and opportunity of those volunteers to do future trail-related work is diminished…It's not necessarily a "bad" future - the Trail will be well managed and maintained. But the volunteer tradition - so long a central part of the AT will be more a myth than a reality. (www.nynjtc.org/volunteers/volunteerism.pdf)

The greatest loss of positions in the US in recent history has been the steady displacement of volunteers by paid staff in charitable organizations, most of which were formed and operated by volunteers. The rationale for this displacement has always been that the work grew to be beyond the capacity of volunteers to manage, a seemingly plausible economic efficiency rationale. But here's Steve Clark's observation on that issue:

Volunteers do have their limitations! Families, jobs, and other interests may take precedence over involvement in AT projects. Needing to prioritize their private lives with their volunteer commitment often make them unable to complete or undertake Trail projects…Does it follow because volunteers do have limitations the solution is to replace them rather than supplement them?

We'll also note that if you buy this efficiency argument, you ought to consider the consequences. It also justifies the complete automation of work, replacing paid staff with undistracted machines because, after all, "paid staff do have their limitations…."

As a final comment upon this issue, we'll simply note that the paid staff position which is most likely to have displaced a volunteer in recent history is that of the professional volunteer program manager - many of whom are actually hired from the ranks of former volunteers, often nimbly displacing themselves.

Confusing Jobs with Tasks

The heart of the confusion about "replacement" is only rarely outright lay-offs of employees in favor of volunteer help. More common is the question of what ought to be asked of a volunteer working alongside an employee. When is it reasonable to have paid and unpaid workers in a setting do the same thing and when is it inappropriate? Can employees delegate tasks from their own to-do lists to volunteers or must volunteers handle tasks specifically developed only for them?

For example, several library volunteer programs met with strong resistance against two seemingly innocent volunteer assignments: helping to check out books and holding children's story hours. In the former, paraprofessional library assistants felt threatened by volunteers. The assistants confused being responsible for checking out books efficiently with doing the actually checking out. Once it was explained that volunteers would follow the instructions of the library assistants, would be assigned mainly in the busiest times to avoid lines, etc., the work of volunteers began to be seen as "help."

The story hour debate was really odd to those with a volunteer perspective. In this case it was the librarians who protested. They said that story hour was an important role for a children's librarian and required expertise to select the books to be read. They also acknowledged that they liked reading to children and didn't want to give it up. The arguments that won the day were: librarians could continue to select the books since the volunteers would be happy to read any selection; librarians could continue to do some of the story hours but, with volunteer support, the number of sessions could be increased from a previous once-a-week to every day; and the volunteers recruited would be selected for their "theatrical" abilities so that the quality of the story hours would go up.

These are excellent examples of confusing tasks with jobs.

Volunteer program managers need to be skilled at task analysis. They need to analyze the work done by paid staff and the work no one is doing that ought to be done by someone in order to select those activities that:

  • are done by employees now but actually do not require the paid worker's special skills (i.e., if someone else who is just as capable - or more so - would do these tasks, employees could then concentrate on their priority tasks);

  • need to be completed by a certain time each week or month, but do not have to be done daily;

  • can be done just as well off-site or after hours;

  • require extra attention and so divert employees from handling the full range of their responsibilities;

  • are of great value to the clients/consumers but do not fall within the primary work of the employees.

Identify these sorts of activities and you have a great start for meaningful volunteer assignments.

The Problem with "Supplemental"

In the last analysis, the offensive part of "volunteers supplement, not supplant staff" is the implication that the only appropriate role for volunteers is supplemental. One can be in favor of not supplanting staff and also not supplanting volunteers. It is possible for a predominantly-volunteer organization to see volunteers as primary and employees as support only. But most important, volunteers can:

  • initiate and experiment

  • work as a team with

  • fill unique roles

  • act as community eyes and ears

  • provide individualized attention

…and a host of other phrases that demonstrate that it makes no sense to bar volunteers from possible infringement on some imaginary paid/unpaid work boundary.

_____________________


These are random samples of current policies articulated in various places about the relationship of paid and unpaid workers. See what you think about the cut-and-dry language, particularly in light of our discussion in this "Points of View" essay.

British Columbia Teacher's Federation
www.bctf.ca/parents/IssuesInEducation/Support/Volunteers.html

In the absence of such provisions in collective agreements, teachers will be guided by the following principles...

(d) volunteer participation in schools should complement the work of paid teaching and non-teaching staff and should not substitute for it.

(e) volunteers should not be used in schools to replace teachers, teacher aides, or other school personnel who have been laid off or had their hours of work cut.

(e) volunteer participation in schools should not be a substitute for adequate staffing by professional and non-teaching support personnel.

Australian Library and Information Association
www.alia.org.au/policies/volunteerguidelines.html

Policies

4. Volunteers should not be used to replace or reduce the number of paid staff necessary to maintain a satisfactory level of library services in a given community, i.e. voluntary labour should not be essential in the maintenance of satisfactory standards in a particular situation.

National Centre for Volunteering
www.volunteering.org.uk/drain.htm

Guidelines for relations between volunteers and paid workers in the Health and Personal Social Services

1. Voluntary activity should complement the work of paid staff, not substitute for it.

2. The action of volunteers should not threaten the livelihood of paid staff.

 

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