Risk Management: Managing Volunteer Worker Risks

by Edward A. Schirick, C.P.C.U., C.I.C., C.R.M.

Preservation of an organization's assets is one of the primary goals of risk management. Most of those who work with volunteers would agree they are valuable assets, worthy of developing and preserving, notwithstanding the fact this can be a challenging task.

Identifying and Screening Volunteer Resources

Treat volunteer workers just as you would an employee. Create a job description, which includes a list of the qualities and skills needed for someone to successfully perform the role and duties needed.

Develop a volunteer worker application designed to gather critical information about their work history, as well as their volunteer history. Include questions designed to draw out the type of volunteer work they've done in the past, what they'd like to do now, and why. Ask them to identify the skills and knowledge they have that would benefit your camp. Relate these back to the job descriptions you created. Consider including a section about certifications that would be valuable for your camp, such as first aid, or CPR skills.

Seek references, and permission to contact those references, as well as supervisors, or administrators at the organizations they served previously, whether as an employee or volunteer. Human resource professionals recommend that you contact all references presented. Resist the temptation to assume acceptable performance, especially when clergy or people you may be mutually acquainted with are included as a personal reference. Document thoroughly, just as you would for a prospective employee.

Checking Criminal History and Driving Records

All volunteer workers with responsibility for or access to campers should undergo a criminal background check. Historically, this has been difficult to accomplish. First and foremost, understand the background check laws in your state. (For information, visit www.ACAcamps.org/publicpolicy/regulations.)

A comprehensive national criminal background check is best. However, the types of checks available and the various processes are confusing. To understand the options visit, www.ACAcamps.org/publicpolicy/cbc.pdf.

Several American Camp Association Business Partners offer discounted background check services to ACA camps. Go to www.ACAcamps.org/partners for more information.

In addition, some of the camp insurance underwriters have made discounted criminal record checks available for their clients. Check with your insurance broker for more information about these value-added benefits through certain insurance companies.

Motor vehicle record checks are available from state departments of motor vehicles. You can ask volunteers to provide their own driving histories, or do your own independent check. Services and costs vary by state. (For details about each state, visit www.ACAcamps.org/publicpolicy/regulations.) Some insurance companies will provide driving history record checks as part of their underwriting process. Once again, check with your insurance brokers.

Regardless of which resource you use, be sure to treat every volunteer equally and fairly. Remember to secure permission to conduct these investigations from each prospective volunteer. Ask your legal counsel to check your volunteer application for compliance with applicable credit reporting laws, notification, and disclosure requirements.

Determining Competency/Training/Supervision

This is the same problem camp directors confront with employees. Preparing/training volunteer workers is as important as preparing/training employees. The preparation process is especially challenging when volunteer workers change weekly or accompany campers from affiliated or member organizations where the camp has less control over this process.

Directors would be wise to avoid assigning volunteer workers to duties that require "hard skills" such as lifeguarding without a prior opportunity to determine their competency.

Consider offering training prior to their arrival at camp. This could be an on-site visit over a weekend, for example. The Internet also offers a highly adaptive environment to accomplish training. This approach might help mitigate the time pressure everyone experiences in the summer that can lead to superficial training experiences. Providing precamp training would allow you to conduct a refresher course once the volunteer arrives at camp under less time pressure.

Determining the type and amount of training is facilitated by the use of job descriptions and volunteer applications. Investing more time before the volunteers arrive at camp might pay big dividends in terms of their confidence and performance. It may also help you sleep better at night during the summer.

Supervision is the other key part of the volunteer worker challenge. Everyone is grateful for the time and value volunteers bring to our camp organizations. Our ability to serve campers without them would be greatly hampered or in some cases impossible.

Feeling grateful and appreciating volunteer workers should not deter you from supervising them the same way you would an employee. Provide feedback, both positive and negative promptly and diplomatically. Catch them doing "something right" as often as you can, and remember to check on the critical or key result areas of their duties regularly. Human resource experts tell us that people pay attention to the issues their "boss" focuses on regularly.

Conduct a formal performance review of your volunteer workers and decide if you want them to return next year. Provide additional information or training for them if you want to help improve their performance next time. Document, document, document!

When Does a Volunteer Worker Become an Employee?

Whoa! Wait a second! How does a volunteer worker become an employee?

Well, unfortunately when this metamorphosis occurs the result is not a beautiful butterfly. Instead, the result can be an ugly set of circumstances with negative financial implications for your camp. Consider the facts in this potentially real set of circumstances. You are blessed with a talented group of volunteer workers. These men and women have wonderful skills and have saved your camp thousands of dollars.

They are at camp in the spring working on projects (new roofs on a couple of cabins) you'd like to have done for the summer. You host them as you always have by providing rooms and feeding them. You provide the materials, equipment, and tell them where you want them to start. Your caretaker works closely with the group providing direction, and you check on them periodically.

Suddenly something goes wrong. One of the crew loses his balance and falls off the roof of a cabin. He is seriously injured. He'll recover, but his medical bills will be substantial, and he'll lose some time from work. He has medical insurance, but no disability insurance at his job, so while he is laid up and can't work there will be no income for his family. He loves your camp. He went there himself, but in the face of this devastating situation he is compelled to contact a lawyer.

The bottom line in this scenario has at least two possible outcomes. The first, his lawyer realizes that because he received free room and meals each time he volunteered that this constituted "remuneration." Therefore, under the worker's compensation law of your state he is eligible for worker's compensation benefits. This will differ from state to state.

This eligibility could come as a surprise to your worker's compensation insurer. But, at least his medical bills and rehabilitation expenses will be covered. He will receive some lost wages protection and maybe even a settlement for any permanent partial disability that could result. The worker's compensation insurer may not renew your policy.

The other outcome in this scenario is the lawyer seizes the opportunity to bring suit against your camp's general liability insurance alleging you were negligent and are therefore responsible for causing the volunteer worker's injuries.

The difference in the outcomes could be substantial. Worker's compensation limits the "employee's" ability to recover the benefits provided by the worker's compensation law in your state. It is an exclusive remedy. Civil litigation could be quite expensive and result in a larger insurance claim. But, either way the financial implications for your camp could be significant and quite negative for some time to come.

Control and Transfer the Risks

Encourage volunteer workers, especially those on building committees and others who might be involved in riskier activities to identify the risks for themselves. This will help to raise awareness.

In addition, provide personal protective equipment—hard hats, eye protection, and gloves for example, and require proper footwear for all volunteer workers. Volunteer workers can be expected to wear personal flotation devices and follow other safety practices while at camp.

More fundamentally, consider avoiding the risk of volunteer worker injuries by not putting them in overly risky situations, like replacing a roof. Instead, transfer the risk to independent contractors. Secure certificates of insurance from them. Request additional insured status for your camp on their general liability insurance for any injury or damage they cause while on your premises. Keep these certificates of worker's compensation and general liability insurance permanently.

Consider how you'd like your insurance to work if a volunteer worker is injured. Then ask your insurance broker/advisors to join you to explore the options for protecting them and your camp organization—preserving everyone's assets as much as possible.

Edward A. Schirick, C.P.C.U., C.I.C., C.R.M., is president of Schirick and Associates Insurance Brokers in Rock Hill, New York, where he specializes in providing risk management advice and in arranging insurance coverage for camps. Schirick is a chartered property casualty underwriter and a certified insurance counselor. He can be reached at 845-794-3113.

Originally published in the 2007 July/August issue of Camping Magazine.