FLSA 20% Rule

Today’s Burning Question: How does the FLSA 20% rule with regard to volunteers work? We are having a debate over this at our department and our Firehouse Lawyers seem to disagree.

Answer: The FLSA’s 20% rule with regard to volunteers is essentially – that volunteers who receive some nominal compensation do not lose their status as volunteers provided they receive “generally, an amount not exceeding 20 percent of the total compensation that the employer would pay to a full-time firefighter for performing comparable services.”

An example: if the total compensation for full time firefighters is determined to be $40,000 per year, and a volunteer is given an $800/year stipend, then because $800 is less than 20% of the total compensation there is no FLSA violation.

However, if a volunteer were to be compensated at a higher rate, say $8,500/year – then it would be an FLSA violation and the department would then have to pay the firefighter at least minimum wage for all hours worked.

To determine “total compensation” the FLSA requires a department to look at what they pay their own hourly employees, and include additional benefits such as pensions, health care, and vacations. For departments that have no full time employees, they may look to comparable departments in the area.

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
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