Volunteering Violation Vignettes

Did you know it is against the law to volunteer for a for-profit business?

The issue has surfaced in a trio of varied settings recently.

Let’s begin in mid-America.

Congressman Tim Griffin and Senator John Boozman have introduced federal legislation, H.R. 3173 and S. 1656, to help women, predominantly, who volunteer at used-children’s-clothing consignment sales. The consignment sales are a small business that helps reduce waste by promoting the re-use of clothing that might otherwise be tossed in the garbage, were a marketplace not fostered. People selling the children’s clothes make some money, and purchasers save some money, rather than have to shell out bigger dollars for new outfits for their kids. It seems win-win-win, right?

Well, the supposedly dastardly aspect to it is that people commonly volunteer on the day of the consignment sale to organize the clothes and put them on racks. Volunteers are there early to arrange the clothes, and as a benefit, these volunteers get first pick of the used clothes. Again, seemingly win-win, right?

Ahhh, there’s the rub. These volunteers, commonly women, are volunteering against the law. “In 2013, the U.S. Department of Labor ruled that the business model, as represented by Rhea Lana’s, violated the Fair Labor Standards Act,” reports the Kansas City Star. The proprietor of the business was cited for failing to employ all of the volunteers. The Star continues, “Rhea Lana Riner, the founder and CEO of Rhea Lana’s…calls it a social business model that has grown in popularity because times have been tough and money tight for a lot of families. ‘We feel moms are co-venturing with us because they have a desire to use their personal time for their benefit.’”

The Children’s Consignment Event Recognition Act seems sensible and would allow children’s consignment events to continue by specifically exempting them from the Fair Labor Standards Act. The bill has been cosponsored by other Midwestern legislators.

Cut to California wineries.

For thousands of years, wineries, including California wineries, have had a tradition of volunteers. From a few decades ago, TV lovers may remember a famous “I Love Lucy” episode where Lucy volunteers to stomp grapes at a winery in an effort to learn about local Italian culture.

Turns out that it is illegal to volunteer to stomp grapes, help bottle wine, or even pour a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon in the tasting room at your favorite winery.

Virtually all wineries are for-profit ventures, even if they do not make a profit. Such is the case with a literal-mom-and-pop winery named Westover & Palomares Vineyards. Until last year’s profit of $11,000, proprietors Bill Westover Smyth and Jill Ramie Smyth had never before made a profit.

Out of the blue, with no warning, California’s Department of Industrial Relations bursts into the winery, snapping photos and scaring off customers. The government proceeded to hand Westover winery a fine of over $130,000 for having volunteers, stemming originally from a wine class Bill Smyth taught as a volunteer, initially at a city adult school program. “I had a formal internship program here with classroom study and everything,” Smyth told Wine Searcher.

The fine destroyed the mom-and-pop small business that, as a result, is closing at the end of 2014.

Making the story even sadder, Wine Searcher reports of Bill Smyth, “I'm fighting cancer right now.” Smyth said. “I had an 80-year-old guy who used to volunteer here. When I told him he couldn't come by anymore, he started crying. Crying. You know how hard that is to take?”

In an interview Bill Smyth told me, “My wife was initially a volunteer, and I married her.”

California Department of Industrial Relations spokesperson Peter Melton told Wine Searcher, "If you're a for-profit business, you have to pay your workers," Melton told Wine Searcher.

The Smyths received no warning before the fine, but Melton claimed to Wine Searcher that's normal, “The labor commissioners, if they see a violation, they're supposed to cite it. Most things in life, you don't get a warning.”

The California Department of Industrial Relations admits it conducted no outreach to wineries on their prohibition of volunteers.

Oddly enough, in the case of the children’s consignment sales, the U.S. Department of Labor did indeed give Rhea Lana’s a warning before any fine, an exercise of prosecutorial discretion which the government of California did not afford the mom and pop vintners.

Kelly Spors, writing for American Express’ Open Forum, tells of another winery victim, “One organic farmer in San Anselmo, California, Jerome Draper, was fined $1,050 in 2010 because family members, such as siblings and nieces and nephews would sometimes help out on his one-acre farm, according to the Marin Independent Journal.”

The final vignette in this trio might be called “Burgers with a Side of Hypocrisy.”

Secretary of State of Kentucky Alison Lundergan Grimes recently had been criticizing U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell for his opposition to a job-killing wage-hike mandate.

It happens that Grimes’ relatives operate a burger joint called Hugh Jass Burgers (for real) in Lexington, Kentucky, where they pay the tipped minimum wage of $2.13 per hour, and not the living wage Secretary of State Grimes advocates.

When asked about the discrepancy between what she preaches and what the family practices, Grimes retorted that she was not involved with the restaurant.

Good researchers discovered that Grimes actually was involved with the restaurant, filing the articles of incorporation and representing the restaurant in another matter. Questioned publicly about her omission on that point, Grimes resorted to claiming the work was pro bono—done as a volunteer.

Does Grimes believe people ought to be able to volunteer at for-profit businesses?