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Is Workers' Comp Necessary When You Have Unpaid Volunteers?

Operating a business can be difficult on its own without the inclusion of anything extra, like workers' compensation or other forms of liability insurance. Workers' compensation has been known to confuse and cause problems for employers, especially when they are unsure of what is applicable under law. While many employers are aware that they are legally required to purchase workers' compensation insurance, regardless of how many employees they have or what industry they are in, they don't necessarily know the circumstances when it is or isn't applicable.

There is some question as to the circumstances in which an employee is eligible for a workers' comp claim. This can include the details of the claim--what happened, the severity of the injury, etc.--and what type of employee the claimant is categorized as. So what about when the employee in question is a volunteer? Do employers need to offer workers' compensation when the employee isn't in a paid capacity?

Workers' Comp Under California Law

Workers' compensation, or workers' comp, is a system that is designed to provide protections and compensation for employees who are injured at work. This can also include any injuries or illnesses that occur as a result of exposure to something at work or otherwise related to a person's job, e.g. a car accident in a company car. It also offers liability protection for employers and means that an employee cannot sue their employer for their role (if they had one) in the accident or injury later on.

Under California law, all employers are required to purchase workers' compensation insurance, with no exceptions based on the number of employees. It is possible for an employer with no employees--a sole proprietor, for example--to purchase workers' compensation coverage for themselves, but it does not have as much value in that capacity. However, it may be a proactive decision should the employer plan on taking on employees later on.

Coverage for Volunteers

Employers who have staff who are considered volunteers may wonder if they need to offer workers' comp for those employees. As they are unpaid and are usually working in a temporary capacity, many employers do not think of volunteers as regular employees. Technically, volunteers are often not included in the coverage for most workers' compensation insurance plans, but they can be added through extended coverage. Depending on the agency an employer purchases their workers' comp plan through--either a private insurance company or State Fund--and the details of the plan, volunteers may already be covered.

An employer who does not already have volunteers covered under their workers' comp plan and wants to extend it should consider a few things. The nature of the employer's business and the frequency in which volunteers are used may determine if the extension is needed. Employers who regularly have a mix of volunteer and paid employees cannot and should not exclude their unpaid employees from coverage, and thus should consider extending their coverage if they haven't yet. Those who rarely have volunteers--once or twice a year, for example, or for special events--should weigh the risks of not having their coverage extended to those volunteers. If necessary, an employer may want to seek legal advice and assistance on the matter to determine if it is necessary for their circumstances.

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