Workplace Protections Not Guaranteed for Volunteers Harassed or Assaulted on the Job

An image of the Washington skyline. In the foreground, there's a river, with a huge white stone bridge with large vaults stretching across it. In the background, there's a quaint, collegiate skyline with green trees and old stone buildings. It's a bright, sunny day. Across the image there is text reading, "WASHINGTON, DC. #4 IN VOLUNTEERING AMONG LARGE CITIES. #GoVolunteer." In the lower right corner is the logo for the Corporation for National & Community Service.

Photo courtesy of Corporation for National & Community Service

D.C. residents who plan on volunteering at their neighborhood non-profit might want to ask to see their harassment policy first.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act requires employers to actively address workplace harassment on the grounds of sex, race, religion, color and national origin. However, unpaid volunteers and interns are not explicitly covered. In the absence of these strong federal protections, holding organizations accountable when they fail to prioritize volunteers’ safety can be a Herculean task.

The potential impact is far-reaching: more than 1.6 million D.C. metro area residents volunteered last year, according to the Corporation for National & Community Service.

Due to underreporting and confidentiality policies, it’s hard to pinpoint how many volunteers have experienced workplace harassment, which ranges from repeated degrading comments to physical assault. In fiscal year 2015, the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC) received 27,893 workplace harassment complaints nationally — but they don’t collect data on the number of complaints filed by volunteers or interns.

Street Sense recently distributed an anonymous survey to volunteer coordinators at 45 local non-profit organizations that serve the homeless community. The 18 respondents ranged from small organizations that work with less than 25 volunteers each year, to massive organizations that work with more than 10,000 volunteers per year. Exactly half indicated they had heard of an incident of harassment or assault perpetrated by a staff member, volunteer or intern at their organization.

“[When Title VII of the Civil Rights Act was being drafted], the U.S. was in this huge economic boom, so everyone was working. In that context, the 1964 Civil Rights Act only talks about employers and their employees,”  said an EEOC attorney who’s name has been withheld due to their fear of federal job cuts under the new administration.

The Supreme Court has yet to accept a case that would clarify whether Title VII applies to unpaid volunteers or interns. Meanwhile, the federal and circuit courts seem reluctant to extend workplace protections to unpaid volunteers or interns unless these individuals receive some other form of compensation, such as college course credit.

The EEOC attorney is critical of this approach. “[Even if] you’re not paying the person, they’re effectively an employee … you’re functioning because you’re leaning on their back for their labor.”

Indeed, volunteers in the D.C. metro area contributed 193 million hours of service worth an estimated $4.1 billion last year, according to Corporation for National & Community Service press secretary Samantha Jo Warfield.

A line chart comparing the rate of volunteering in DC versus the country on average. On the vertical axis is a measure of the rate of volunteering. On the horizontal access are years from 1974 to 2015. On the graph, there's one line for DC and one for the US on average, and DC's line is consistently higher than the national average.
The number of volunteers in the D.C. metro area is consistently higher than the U.S. average. | Chart courtesy of Corporation for National & Community Service

The D.C. Human Rights Act of 1977 goes beyond federal law to offer employment protections for 15 protected traits, such as sex, gender identity and disability. Although volunteer status is not one of these traits, volunteers can still file an employment discrimination claim with the D.C. Office of Human Rights (OHR) so long as the harassment occurred in D.C. within the past 365 days and was motivated by a protected trait. For example, a volunteer who was sexually harassed can file a sex discrimination claim.

“In D.C., we have probably the more progressive civil rights law of any other jurisdiction here in the United States,” said Stephanie Franklin, director of policy and communications at OHR.

The OHR essentially functions as a free alternative to the courts. Clients initiate the claim process by filing a complaint online or in person. After meeting with the client to confirm eligibility, OHR attempts to resolve the complaint through mediation before conducting a thorough investigation and presenting the case to an impartial commission of judges. Damages awarded from mediation or adjudication range from monetary compensation, to changes in the organization’s policies, to anti-harassment training for staff.

An OHR complaint usually takes six months to a year to be resolved, which is much faster than the civil court system, according to Franklin. In fiscal year 2015, OHR docketed 399 employment-related violations of the D.C. Human Rights Act.

Both the EEOC and OHR offer their services free of charge. Private organizations such as the Crime Victim’s Compensation Program and Network for Victim Recovery of D.C. also play a critical role in offering financial and emotional support for victims who ultimately decide to pursue legal action.

Many non-profit leaders are also trying to make positive changes to their own policies. “Even if we’re doing good now, we’re always looking to do better,” said Sonya D. Springfield, volunteer and in-kind manager at Bread for the City. For Springfield, that meant adopting a rigorous code of conduct and harassment reporting procedure. It also meant ensuring these materials were available online and covered during volunteer orientation.

It is unclear whether or not the new Trump administration will affect what federal workplace protection resources are available for unpaid volunteers.

“We have some sort of insulation because we’re local government,” Franklin said. “There may be more or less claims brought to [OHR] depending on the climate of this area entering into the next administration. But I can’t say whether or not there’ll be any significant changes.”

In an uncertain political landscape, the first line of defense for volunteers remains each individual organization’s leadership and culture.

“The more policies you have in place and the more you verbalize these things… [the more] people will think twice,” said Wanda Spence, director of administration at Central Union Mission. “As a nonprofit organization, it’s very important to make sure every person is protected.”

Issues |Civil Rights|Jobs|Sexual Assault

Region |Washington DC

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