April 14, 1999 10:20 AM PDT

AOL volunteers claim labor violations

At least several volunteers are challenging America Online's practice of relying on volunteers to help maintain its virtual community.

Some of the volunteers have asked the Labor Department to investigate whether the use of voluntary labor violates the Federal Fair Labor Standards Act.

A Labor Department official speaking on condition of anonymity told News.com that the government agency has been receiving information from several volunteers but is currently trying to determine whether an employer-employee relationship exits between the volunteers and AOL.

"There are a lot of questions about volunteers. Are these people considered employees? That is the question," the source said. "There is no investigation until we can establish an employee-employer relationship between the volunteers and AOL.

"It is too soon to tell," the official added. "We are not going to begin an investigation until the relationship is clear."

AOL said it contacted the Labor Department after it became aware of the labor controversy being discussed on Observers.net, a community site set up last September by former volunteers and often visited by former AOL employees and volunteers.

"We initiated conversation [with the Labor Department]," said AOL spokeswoman Ann Brackbill. "We don't go into the details about our discussions with any regulatory body."

AOL has an official community leader program that grew out of the work AOL subscribers have done since 1985, when AOL launched.

"What volunteers do is community building," said Brackbill. "This is really a grassroots thing that sprouted organically with members helping other members--people who love to spend time online guiding other people online.

"The community leader program for AOL is really a coordinating of those activities," Brackbill added.

AOL has about 12,000 employees and about 10,000 volunteers, but the company insists that the duties of employees is much greater in scope, although some employees supervise volunteers' community activity. Volunteers must put in a minimum of four hours of work per week with no cap on the maximum. In exchange for their work, they receive free AOL accounts for unlimited use--a $21.95 per month value.

Mary Perkins, a volunteer from Chicago, told The New York Times today that AOL relies on volunteers to do work that should be paid.

She also said that AOL has dismissed volunteers who have asked for compensation or complained about the program and has taken away their free accounts.

Under the Fair Labor Standards Act, a person must be paid for time spent at job-related activities that benefit the employer, the newspaper said.

 

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