Museum Stores Volunteers and Department of Labor

October 3, 2016

Do you have volunteers in your Museum Store? Recently, our Chief Operating Officer asked us to review our intern and volunteer program museum wide to ascertain if we were in alignment with the Department of Labor. Many of us were surprised to learn that we needed to update our programs. Volunteers and interns have long been the background of the museum world and it’s very important for all of us to be aware of the latest standards. According to the Department of Labor (DOL), interns and volunteers are not employees by definition of an employee/employer relationship.

The DOL defines a volunteer as an individual who performs hours of service “… for civic, charitable or humanitarian reasons, without promise, expectation or receipt of compensation for services rendered”.  To determine whether an individual is a true volunteer engaged in “ordinary volunteer work”, the DOL considers a number of factors as listed below (and no single factor is a determination):

  • Is the activity less than a full time occupation?
  • Are the services offered freely and without pressure or coercion?
  • Are the services of the kind typically associated with volunteer work?
  • Does the worker receive or expect any benefit from the organization to which it is providing services?
  • Have regular employees been displaced to accommodate the volunteer?

The last factor really popped out to me. Years ago, similar to many other museums, our Museum Store at the Walters was mainly staffed by volunteers as a “savings” to the museum in place of paid staff. As time passed, and our operation grew with a web-store, custom product development and more, our volunteer staff was replaced by paid full time and part time staff.

At the same time, many of our longtime and trust worthy volunteers, retired, moved on or volunteered in other departments.

When our COO asked us to review our departmental volunteer programs, we had one remaining volunteer who still loved to come into the Walters every Thursday and work in our store but she was uncomfortable operating a register. We quickly changed her job description to be more of a customer service representative: to greet visitors, show merchandise, assist the cashiers and help to price merchandise. This then was not a position that was in place of a paid staff person. This volunteer now assists us in our store with her customer service skills, information about the Walters and knowledge of its collections. In return, she continues to learn about the art, is able to see her museum friends and finds reward in her volunteer experience.

As an industry, we are always moving towards best practices. Here are some questions you may want to ask yourself as you consider a volunteer: What is the reason for bringing a volunteer into your store- is it to replace a paid staff person? What will the individual be doing? What is the significance of this work to your organization? Does the work need to be done? What is the length of time of the arrangement? Who is benefiting most from the work of the volunteer?

Volunteers have long been an asset to many of our Museum Stores and to our museums themselves. We hope, in turn, it has been a rewarding experience for them. If you have a volunteer program, I would encourage you to visit the Department of Labor website for up-to date information.

Alice McAuliffe is the current MSA Board Treasurer, past President of the Mid-Atlantic Chapter and has served on numerous MSA committees. Alice is Manager of Retail Operations at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland

Alice McAuliffe, Manager of Retail Operations, Walters Art Museum

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