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Volunteer Misstep

staff training Sep 28, 2018

Martial artists have the best questions in the world. Studio owners and senseis take those questions to a whole different level. The latest question some posed to me was about volunteers.

Volunteers are a big part of our programs. For many of us, the success of our  programs hinges on volunteers stepping in and assisting in everything from teaching junior students to scrubbing bathrooms. As I started researching it, I found some information that I believe is a serious concern for our community.

If you use a volunteer model, the U.S. Department of Labor and State Revenue Departments have made it law that for-profit businesses cannot use volunteers. If you do that, you can be audited and charged back payroll tax, interest and penalties. While we’re racking the tally up, you could also be held accountable for the unpaid wages to the volunteer.

So, I started thinking, “Are these positions really volunteers or internships? You’re providing valuable teaching skills to the individuals. Could these people really be interns instead of employees?”

I checked the research available online and found that the U.S. Department of Labor has a six-point test to determine whether a person is an intern for a for-profit business. Here are the two main points I think might be germane to martial arts school owners:
1. That intern does not displace [paid] regular employees. The martial arts tradition
is that interns/volunteers do displace [paid] employees.

2. The employer gains no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern/volunteer. Of course, the studio does gain an immediately advantage through cost-free labor.

I’m not a lawyer. So, I strongly suggest you consult with a local lawyer to find out how your studio is viewed by the federal laws and those of your state.

I then thought about mentorships. Could the relationship really be a mentorship? In school settings, students that are advanced in a subject frequently mentor and assist students that are struggling in that subject. I struggled with physics, for example, and gratefully accepted the help of students that understood this subject.

As I poked around a bit more, I found I had finally struck on the right idea. It might be possible that “peer mentors” are permitted to teach other students without tangling up the employment law regarding volunteers. Peer mentoring is a form of mentorship that usually takes place between a person who has lived through a specific experience
(peer mentor) and a person who is new to that experience. An example would be an experienced student being a peer mentor to a new student in a particular subject, or in a new school.

The trick is understanding what a peer mentor can and cannot do.

Again, I’m not a legal expert. Review of the online materials seems to make it plain that peer mentors are working with other students. They are peers in the sense that they are all students. It’s perfectly acceptable for one student to be a senior and the other a junior; they’re still all students.

Peer mentors can also be required to attend classes to learn how to mentor. You can use your Leadership Program to teach them effective teaching strategies, proper touch, safety, and mindfulness of body mechanics for optimum performance.

However, it appears that what you cannot do is have peer mentors perform tasks that benefit the studio outside of direct contact with other students. The types of tasks I’m thinking of would include:

• cleaning the studio
• preparing mailings or social media posts
• answering the phone
• distributing flyers

In other words, the list of what it takes to run your daily operation, which goes on endlessly, is prohibited.

Let me repeat: I am not a lawyer. You really do need local legal advice to decide if this needle can be threaded and, if so, how to do it.

However you structure your program, martial arts tradition is wrapped up in the concept of giving back what we’ve been given. I believe it’s important to keep our traditions relevant to modern martial arts while also accepting the fact that we live in a land of tremendous regulation and litigation.

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