are there legal issues with volunteering at my yoga studio in exchange for free classes?

A reader writes:

I volunteer a few hours a week at my local yoga studio as a front-desk worker, and was recently made aware of an opportunity to pick up a part-time manager position at the yoga studio. When discussing this with the owner, I stated that I would want some sort of compensation for my time, especially if I would be working for the studio in an official capacity.

The studio owner offered to compensate me by putting any hours I worked (at a rate to be determined) towards a teacher training program that she offers at the studio, and that I would be taking next year. In practical terms, this would give me a substantial “discount” or if I put in enough hours, would make the program itself free when I eventually enroll.

This sounded like a perfect solution to me, but I want to make sure this wouldn’t get our studio / the owner of the studio in trouble, legally. If I were to sign a contract stipulating the terms of my employment as previously stated, would this work? Or do I need to request compensation in the form of actual payment to make sure the studio doesn’t get into legal trouble?

If the yoga studio is a for-profit business, it’s actually illegal for them to use volunteers for anything; for-profit businesses are required to pay people at least minimum wage for all work that they perform. That’s true even if the people in question are happy to waive their right to be paid.

I realize, though, that it’s pretty common for yoga studios to let people volunteer a few hours a month in exchange for discounts on classes, and if that’s a trade you’re happy to make, I tend to think that’s your call. But in theory, yes, the yoga studio could get in trouble for it. If they were reported (by you or someone else), they could be fined and ordered to pay volunteers back-pay for their time.

In practice, are they likely to be reported? Probably not, especially considering how common a practice this seems to be among yoga people — but it’s certainly a risk. If nothing else, it would be smart (and kind) for you to make the studio owner aware of it, since she probably has no idea.

This is one of those laws that’s so commonly ignored that often people genuinely don’t realize it, especially in fields where volunteering despite the law is pretty common and especially in places that can feel more like a club of like-minded people than a profit-generating enterprise.

{ 132 comments… read them below }

  1. Dorothy*

    Here’s a possible solution if you’re really concerned about somebody reporting this arrangement: have the studio agree to pay you minimum wage and give you an X% discount on classes — so you’ll be paying the majority of your minimum wage back to the studio for the part of your classes you’re expected to pay for. You’d want to find out what you’d owe for taxes for a year of that arrangement, though, and make sure they’re withheld from your paycheck properly, but it might be totally worth it.

    1. Adam*

      This sounds like a great idea. Not sure what sort of pay system the studio uses for actual employees, but maybe they could set up an Aline card account or something similar for you that your pay would go into, and then you could use those funds to turn around pay back the studio for your classes. You’d still get a W-2 and everything, but it would be in one place and wouldn’t get lost in your other finances.

    2. MK*

      It’s not as simple as all that in most countries. Employing people usually involves considerable beaurocracy, legal obligations and often complicated concerns regarding safety regulations, tax reporting and the employer’s taxation in general (sometimes encumbrances, sometimes deductions), etc.

      1. Dorothy*

        But if the studio already employs some people, it would be a small burden to add another person to the payroll — studio should already have someone handling payroll and deducting taxes, and complying with safety regulations. If the studio has all independent contractors… that’s another problem, as they’re probably not all independent contractors under the law — that can mean big fines from the IRS and the state department of revenue.

        1. OhNo*

          How “small” of a burden it would be to add employees to the payroll would depend on who does the books for the studio – if it’s a professional, then sure, it’d be relatively easy to do.

          But what if it’s another volunteer or someone who isn’t well versed in this kind of thing? If that’s the case, adding one (or more) people to the payroll has the potential to be a major undertaking. Especially if it’s a small studio that’s owner-run, you might run into the situation where it’s more work to add someone to the payroll that it is to just have them volunteer (even if illegally) and hope for the best.

          1. Dorothy*

            Absolutely – the choice might be to “volunteer” or work there not at all and pay full price for classes.

        2. INTP*

          PBI – I’m not sure what goes on behind the scenes but at yoga studios I have visited, the only employees at the studio were the yoga instructors. I think they’re likely independent contractors because I know that’s common for fitness instructors and they usually teach at multiple studios. I rarely see receptionists at the desk, though sometimes there are ads for volunteers in exchange for classes. So I would not be surprised if an independently owned studio had no employees, just an owner and contractors, or few enough employees that adding paperwork for one more would be a big enough hassle that they’d rather just choose another willing volunteer than pay the person. (I imagine something like Corepower would have to have employees, though I don’t know if they take “volunteers” or not.)

        3. Shannon*

          That honestly depends. Some businesses try to stay under a certain amount of employees in order to continue to qualify as a small business.

      2. Koko*

        It’s also one of those situations where the value to the studio is less than the market value to the volunteer. Adding a couple volunteers to a class of paying attendees doesn’t actually cost the studio anything, unless the class fills up and a paying customer is turned away. And an opportunity cost is still more attractive/affordable than a payroll expense.

        Then you have to factor in things like, the studio may allow volunteers to attend X classes for every X hours volunteered per X time period, but the volunteers may not be maxing out the number of free classes they could be claiming if they’re super busy, out of town, or have a bad head cold that prevents them from doing their regular practice on occasion. Under a wage agreement, they’d have to pay the full agreed-upon wage with no hope that the employee might return or fail to claim some of the compensation.

        Not saying it’s not still illegal, but I doubt the studio would see it as equivalent to pay a wage and give a class discount instead of just giving free classes.

    3. Joey*

      That sounds easy, but paying employees and employing someone is a lot harder than just writing a check.

      Taxes, liability insurance, workers comp, and unemployment costs have to be factored in.

      And just for clarity, you cannot waive your right to minimum wage.

      1. Dorothy*

        But if the studio already employs some people, it would be a small burden to add another person to the payroll — studio should already have someone handling payroll and deducting taxes, and complying with safety regulations. If the studio has all independent contractors… that’s another problem, as they’re probably not all independent contractors under the law — that can mean big fines from the IRS and the state department of revenue.

        1. MT*

          administratively is not a big deal, but cost wise it is. benefits and taxes can add 50% to someone’s costs

          1. Dorothy*

            Oh, agreed that the employer’s actual cost is more than what the employee is paid, but minimum wage for a few hours a week and a discount on classes shouldn’t be that big of a deal, unless the yoga studio is miniscule and can’t handle it.

            1. MT*

              If they are small enough to need volunteers to work the desk, then it is probably small and not a full time studio.

              1. MT*

                From the letter, i would be the studio owner leases out the studio to yoga teachers, who are contractors, and probably doesn’t have any employees.

              2. Dorothy*

                Possibly (but see commentator below who says her large yoga studio does this) – and now we’ve come full-circle — is it worth it to accept the risk of being reported to the IRS/state department of labor for not paying someone cash for work? Or is the risk too high and should the yoga studio jump through hoops to make the situation entirely legal? That’s a question only the yoga studio can answer.

                1. MT*

                  File Form 1099-MISC, Miscellaneous Income, for each
                  person to whom you have paid during the year:
                  At least $10 in royalties (see the instructions for box 2) or
                  broker payments in lieu of dividends or tax-exempt interest
                  (see the instructions for box 8);
                  At least $600 in:
                  1. rents (box 1);
                  2. services performed by someone who is not your
                  employee (including parts and materials), box 7;
                  3. prizes and awards (see instructions for boxes 3 and 7;
                  4. other income payments (box 3);
                  5. medical and health care payments (box 6);
                  6. crop insurance proceeds (box 10);
                  7. cash payments for fish (or other aquatic life) you

                  if the writer is performing $600 worth of work in a year, and the yoga studio is not issuing a 1099, then there could be huge issues with the irs.

                2. Dorothy*

                  Replying to MT’s comment re 1099s – yep, could be a big problem. Still, some businesses choose to take that risk every year, and some of them get caught. Some don’t. It’s a gamble.

                3. MT*

                  If the studio gets audited, it will also fall onto the letter writer who failed to pay taxes on the income.

  2. Gwydion*

    I’d also note that even if you were to accept free classes in exchange for your work (basically, bartering for classes) you’d still need to claim income taxes for the market value of the services that you received. So, not only can the Yoga studio get in trouble for a violation of labor law, but you can also be in trouble for not claiming the ‘income’ on your taxes.

    1. Dorothy*

      That’s absolutely correct – it would be much easier to work at minimum wage for a discount on classes.

    2. J.B.*

      Plus if you are considered an independent contractor your tax rate would be a lot higher than as a W-2 employee. Teaching fitness classes on the side was completely not worth it for this reason.

  3. MT*

    God forbid if you get hurt while working the front desk, there are tons of legal issues that can arise.

  4. Development professional*

    I’ve often wondered about a completely different scenario of “volunteers” working for for-profit companies. The dressers who help models get dressed back stage at fashion shows are, in my experience, unpaid “volunteers.” I did this as a student – we were promised “connections” among the people we met backstage but we worked very hard with no food allowed and no breaks. We were responsible for scheduling ourselves into as many shows as we felt comfortable with, to create our own “breaks” in the schedule. But we were NOT interns, not in the legal sense of the word nor were we called that. The captains who we reported to were, I believe, paid. And of course, the hair and makeup people are all paid, some of them very well. But I never understood how for-profit companies, some of them very large, could get away with having dozens of unpaid workers backstage. I was a dresser at New York Fashion Week in the official Mercedes Benz tents, not some satellite event or smaller market. I never worked for any of the truly global labels, but for plenty of brands you’ve seen on the pages of Vogue. There have been lawsuits against some of these companies (and magazines) for their unpaid interns, but I haven’t seen anything pertaining to the dressers.

    1. The IT Manager*

      I suspect that they get away with it because of the prestige of being backstage at high profile fashion shows and hobnobbing* with models and designers. Not that this is right or legal, but that’s why they get away with it – because so many people including yourself are/were willing to do it.

      * hobnob = mix socially, especially with those of higher social status.

      1. INTP*

        This. Anyone who raised a fuss over it (like filing a lawsuit) would be noted and not get very far in the industry. They’ve got a lot of people eager to work for no pay and not very many that are invested in labor conditions in the fashion industry yet okay with being blacklisted from it AND have the resources and inclination to take on the situation legally.

        1. Development professional*

          Well, yes. They actually told us as much at the time. Anything you did/said out of line would lead to you being ostracized and not asked back. This is also how they got away with the unpaid intern nonsense for all those years. But the interns have finally started to bring suits. I just wonder if this other form of free labor will also face scrutiny eventually.

    2. Ann O'Nemity*

      Back in the late 80s or early 90s, I was a window model at a kids clothing store at the mall. Basically, I sat in the window like a live mannequin in exchange for free or heavily discounted clothes. In retrospect, I can’t imagine how this was legal.

      1. Joey*

        That was so weird. I saw more than a few kids toy with live models to see what it took for them to move.

      1. the gold digger*

        Even though the Green Bay Packers could probably get fans to do it for free, they people $10 an hour to shovel the field and stands.

        BTW, I thought I was getting a really good deal when I got to go to Jazzercise as much as I wanted for free in exchange for spending 15 minutes before class checking people in twice times a week. However, I probably should not have used that as an example of – of I don’t remember what – on my application to Northwestern’s business school. That example, plus my question to the alumni recruiter – “What makes Northwestern ten times better than UT that they charge ten times as much tuition? They are both top 20 schools” – might be why I did not get in.

        1. Beyonce Pad Thai*

          A year or two ago a few of those performers sued, right? I remember reading an article on one of the women and thinking they were treated horribly. Soooo much money going around in these organisations and yet they are so stingy.

  5. Brooklyn Betty*

    Two questions about this kind of scenario:

    1) What if someone volunteers an hour of work for an hour of classes (or however many hours for however many class hours) and the value of the classes is far greater? If a class is $50 for one hour, it would take me a day’s work at minimum wage to earn one class. It’s like getting paid $50 an hour if I swap time for class time.

    2) How does the law look at “co-op” scenarios—which this situation almost sounds like? Many cities have community food co-ops, where people become members then are obligated to volunteer several hours a month. I could totally see this kind of yoga place being like a community co-op, where people contribute in a variety of ways (cash payments, trade in services, etc.)

    1. Dorothy*

      That’s a really good question, re co-ops. I do not know the answer to that – I imagine it varies state-to-state.

    2. Gwydion*

      I’d have to imagine most of these Co-Ops are organized as non-profit organizations, which are able to accept free/donated labor with little issue. I assume unincorporated co-ops would run the same way. It sounds to me like the problem is really that the Yoga Studio is a for-profit corporation (even if it’s a solo practice) that is reducing its labor burden without paying wages/taxes.

          1. TOC*

            Yep! The entire goal of a cooperative is to exist for the benefit of its members. This includes earning financial returns and then sharing those profits (as dividends or patronage) with member-owners.

            Fun fact: REI (the outdoors store) is a co-op, which a lot of people don’t realize. They are the largest consumer co-op in the country. They are definitely a for-profit company but those profits are returned to members in a 10% annual “refund” (patronage) on their purchases.

    3. TOC*

      Some co-ops are actually phasing out their volunteer programs because of this very issue. Co-ops are usually for-profit enterprises and so shouldn’t be using unpaid volunteers as replacement for paid workers doing the same tasks. The feds have actually penalized some co-ops for not paying volunteers a minimum wage and not covering their workers’ comp.

    4. Elysian*

      Regarding the first part, the law doesn’t allow you to do that instead of receiving minimum wage in cash. You have to be paid in cash (or the equivalent of cash, like a check or sometimes debit cards). Otherwise everyone at McDonalds would be forced to work for McDonalds gift cards only (for example), and you can’t pay your rent with that.

    5. Not So NewReader*

      In the world of time banking you trade one hour for one hour. There is no dollar value any where. So an hour of working at volunteering would be worth an hour of yoga lessons.
      A little mind bending because an hour of one person’s time is equal to an hour of another person’s time.

      Barter involves a dollar value somewhere. So the example you give in Q1 would be barter. Because the yoga classes are worth $50 per hour and the volunteer is worth x per hour (a lesser amount.) The math works into the volunteer working more than one hour to have an hour of yoga. Barter is taxable.

      In time banking there is no dollar value anywhere. It’s just swapping one hour for one hour. One more detail- it’s a bank. You have an account. So let’s say you help out at the yoga place. The yoga instructor adds hours to your account. You can use those hours anywhere you want with in the time bank community. Time banking is not taxable because it’s impossible to nail down a dollar value on equally traded time.

      I am amazed at what I see happening out there. Doctors are time banking. Yep, you can get one hour (or whatever time) from a doctor with your time bank hours that you have in your account. And there are other folks who use a time bank.

      Some of the thinking behind this set up is:

      Everyone’s hour is the same. We all have 60 minute hours.
      Everyone has something to contribute and something they need.
      Some work is beyond a monetary value.
      Respect for others.

      It might be worth OP’s while to investigate something like this.

      1. TOC*

        Time banking is so interesting! I’m curious how time banks avoid the legal restrictions on pay. Is it because participants are acting as independent contractors? If so, I’m curious if that would apply in OP’s case since it seems that OP’s duties as a manager would require her to be classified as an employee, not an independent contractor.

        1. Not So NewReader*

          There is no pay, because you are exchanging hours for hours.

          For example: I go over an mow my neighbor’s lawn for her. She’s in the time bank and we agreed that she will give me time bank hours and I will accept them. So let’s say it takes me 4 hours to mow her lawn. She goes online takes four hours out of her account and puts them in mine.

          Okay, so now I have four hours in my account. And I decide that I really need some basic work done on my car- oil changed and so on. I hop on the time bank site and see who is offering car help- oh, there’s Bob. So I contact him and he agrees to do the work for time bank hours. It takes him 2.5 hours to run through all the things my car needs. I go online and I move 2.5 of my hours over to Bob’s account.

          It’s a little mind-bending because there is no money involved anywhere. In my exchange, I paid for and provide the oil, filters and what ever else Bob needed. When I mowed my neighbor’s lawn she provide the gas and the mower.

          These are pretty straightforward examples. I read an example of a social worker who was helping an elderly woman. The woman did not speak any English. Her family was gone and the woman was lonely. Really lonely. So the social worker, not know what else to do, looked at her local time bank. She found a member that spoke the same language as the elderly woman and was willing to visit with the woman in exchange for time bank hours. Sure enough, it was not long, the two women were laughing, telling stories, and singing songs. This would be an example of work that has no monetary value- you can’t put a price on companionship.

          1. Jane Elliot*

            That’s great… until you get to someone who’s disabled, or has no skill to trade. Then what happens?

            Someone who has something like chronic fatigue syndrome is not going to be able to pay back into the system because they spend the majority of the day in bed. A child with severe autism won’t be able to pay back either. Someone extremely elderly, let’s say, 87 years old, isn’t going to have any hours left. This is why a time bankable system can’t replace a system like Social Security. I’d just like to point this out here.

            1. Not So NewReader*

              It’s not intended to replace social security. But social security is not enough to live on for a lot of people. People will always need some form of cash to pay for food, utilities and so on.

              And that is true there are some people that may not be able to that much. Time banks are hammering out ways to include as many people as possible. One question I had was what about people released from prison for certain type of crimes? That could be very difficult to weave into a time bank. But I believe that there are time banks out there that have done that.

              Some folks are not even interested, so definitely this is not a one size fits all thing. In our OP’s case, she maybe able to locate a time bank and get the yoga training she would like.

            2. NE*

              That was a problem with time banking in my area.

              I thought it was a great idea until I started participating. I earned some hours, but I had nothing to do with them. Very few people offered services I needed or wanted. I offered a high market value skill and could easily have spent 40 hours a week fulfilling requests.

              The time bank in my area was extremely inclusive, offering up time banking as a rehabilitation service. Too many people with minimal skills, too many people I didn’t want in my home. On top of that, there were too many requests for money and hours automatically deducted for supporting the exchange’s administrative burden.

              I found that when it came to practice, getting paid market rate so I could go purchase the services I needed from people I trusted was a better deal for me. I did meet one older woman I really enjoyed and I continued to volunteer on her project after ending my association with our time bank.

          2. TOC*

            Oh, I know there’s no money exchanged. But as we’re discussing elsewhere on this thread, even bartering for services (which is essentially what time banking is) can make someone subject to wage laws if their services appear to be regular employment duties.

  6. My two cents...*

    would the same min wage rule apply to an “intern”? i know of someone who’s been working as a marketing intern for a yoga studio, and she received a free full membership (~$150/mo value if i got myself one) and is limited to <10hrs/wk.

      1. LBK*

        They aren’t – interns are legally allowed to not be paid anything as long as their role meets certain criteria. Now, most internships don’t actually meet those criteria, so there do end up being a lot of illegal unpaid internships, but there are legally defined and acceptable ones.

        1. LBK*

          Now that I read them again, there are some that are the same as the pre-employment training requirements, but it’s not exactly the same:

          1) The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training that would be given in the educational environment;
          2) The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern
          3) The intern does not displace regular employees
          4) The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern, and on occasion its operations may be impeded
          5) The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship
          6) The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages

        2. Felicia*

          In my experience, the vast majority of unpaid internships – especially at for profits, but at some non profits too, are totally illegal.

      2. Gwydion*

        Right, my point is that the legal criteria for interns is the same as the trainee criteria listed in the above article.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      If it’s a for-profit business, unpaid internships have very strict rules (that are often violated). With the exception of nonprofits, the Department of Labor requires that unpaid work be primarily for the benefit of the intern, not the employer. And if it’s not, they can reclassify the intern as an employee and require the employer to pay back wages for their work.

      More here:

    2. INTP*

      This would only be legal if the net benefit of the work went to the intern rather than the company. For example, they have a full-time marketing person, and the intern’s “work” consists of shadowing the marketing person or doing small assignments under the guidance of that marketing person, so that in the end the resources spent on training the intern outweigh the value of any actual work the intern produces. Many if not most unpaid internships don’t meet the legal criteria, though.

      1. My two cents...*

        based on what she’s told me, that’s basically what happened. she shadowed while in school. now that she’s started producing (profitable) materials for the yoga studio, they’ve made her a ‘marketing assistant’ employee while she completes her degree.

  7. Scott*

    Does this apply to pretty much any business? I’m a web designer and I’ve done web sites for lots of service people who provide me with free services in exchange: dog grooming, dentistry, etc.

    1. Dorothy*

      I think technically, you have to report the value of the services you received (dog grooming, dentistry) as income and the people who received your website services have to report the value of that service as income to the IRS and the state.

      1. Pessimist*

        Someday, when the environment crumbles, money will have lost all its meaning and we’ll all just be trading and bartering services. ;)

    2. Joey*

      web design is different since theyre not controlling your actions (ie they arent treating you like employee). It’s more like b2b and you just aren’t charging them a fee.

    3. MT*

      Bartering is the exchange of goods or services. Usually there is no exchange of cash. An example of bartering is a plumber exchanging plumbing services for the dental services of a dentist. You must include in gross income in the year of receipt the fair market value of goods or services received from bartering.

      from the IRS

    4. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Sounds like you’re an independent contractor; i.e, that it’s not a situation where you could be categorized as an employee. As an independent contractor, your’e allowed to set your own rates (which can be zero if you want). It would only become an issue if they were treating you like an employee (setting the time and place of your work, etc.).

      1. Dorothy*

        That doesn’t mean there aren’t tax consequences for a business owner who engages in this sort of arrangement. 1099’s have to be issued for some activities.

        1. MT*

          if im reading the irs site correctly, goods, services, or payments greater than $600 for the year have to be issued a 1099

      2. OhNo*

        So, as a hypothetical, could the yoga studio in the question claim that the volunteer desk workers are in fact independent contractors, as long as the studio doesn’t dictate the time & place of their work? Or are there other restrictions that the studio might run into?

    5. Elysian*

      This applies to any employee. You don’t “employ” yourself, so you don’t have to pay yourself minimum wage. You’re a contractor as far as the other service people are concerned, and you can set your price with them. You still have to report the “income” you receive the value you receive by getting free dentistry to the IRS. But you can charge less than minimum wage for you (ie. nothing, or the value of a service instead of cash).

    6. Chriama*

      I feel like this is more bartering. I suspect that lots of professionals trade services and I think claiming income of the service you receive and writing off the service you provided would basically cancel out (assuming you give them the same $ value) as far as taxes are concerned, right?

      1. Sheila*

        In my experience, most people are thinking along those lines (if they realize bartering is taxable at all); however, Scott, you might want to keep records documenting your work/the services received so you can justify it if anyone IRS-like asks questions.

  8. Apollo Warbucks*

    I’m pretty sure there’ll be a personal tax liabilty for the the OP too. Make sure to check out the tax that might be payable on the assumed benefit of the value of the discount.

    Getting stung with a big tax bill might not make the deal so attractive, even more painful if the IRS tack on interest and penalties.

    1. KarenT*

      Agreed. I’ve often wondered about the legality of this type of arrangement from a tax perspective (both the employer and employee) and a liability perspective.

      There’s a chain of yoga studios in Canada that posts this right on their website (for anyone interested, google Power Yoga Canada energy exchange). You can “earn” your yoga by volunteering: manning the front desk, cleaning the studio, washing the towels.

      1. Apollo Warbucks*

        I’m not sure how it plays out in the US / Canada but in the UK the employers liability would be little to nothing, while the employee would pay tax on the value of the benefit, reported to the revenue in March / April then more withholding tax is taken over the next year to repay the difference. Mainly its health, dental and company cars that are listed, but school fees also crop up now and then.

  9. Jake*

    Relatedly, does compensation have to be money to keep out of violating minimum wage laws?

    Could I pay somebody in Wrigley’s gum? How about free swimming lessons? Assuming the value of those items exceeds minimum wage of course.

      1. Elysian*

        Clarification: You have to pay at least the minimum wage in cash. If you want to pay $7.25 (or your locality’s minimum wage) in cash, and then pay another million dollars worth of “compensation” in gum, or stock options, or free swim or yoga classes, or whatever, that’s fine until your non-exempt employees start working overtime (overtime has to be in cash).

    1. Joey*

      Nor can it be comp time which many businesses wrongly do.

      The only exception to that is public employers- they can give you comp time in lieu of paying OT.

  10. Christina*

    This is really interesting. There’s a (pretty big deal, not strapped for cash) yoga studio in my (very large) city who does this both for front desk/studio cleaning/flyering (you have to work X hours per week at the studio) and for “skilled work”–marketing/communications, web design, event management/promotion.

    I actually worked for them for a year+ doing communications (mostly newsletters) for them and it didn’t work out as well for me as I had hoped. I could take classes for free, but any visiting teachers/workshops/teacher training I just got a small discount on. I also ended up working (at least what felt to me) as a lot more than the X hours the front desk volunteers, the trade off being I didn’t have to be in the studio to do my work (having a full-time day job meant my other options for doing work-trade there were limited as I didn’t want to spend half my weekend checking people into classes) but to some degree that came with the expectation that I was available by email all the time.

    I also think there’s a weird thing with yoga that makes it seem…not “yoga”ish to ask for money (though the studios don’t have a problem charging for classes). This is particularly a problem since so many of the people who do yoga are women, and it’s been talked here a lot about how women generally have a hard time asking for what they’re worth. It also gets conflated further by this particular studio having people in their teacher training do their “seva”/selfless service by doing tasks like front desk work/cleaning around the studio.

    And on a slight tangent, in terms of my resume, I’ve been putting this under “Additional Experience” which also includes a blog I write with the thinking that it was “volunteering”, but it sounds like I should be listing this under my professional experience since it wasn’t for a non-profit. Yes/no?

    1. Christina*

      And just to clarify, my issue is not that they’re having people do work around the studio, but calling it seva when, to me, that should really be volunteering for the larger community, not paying tuition to give free labor to a for-profit company. But maybe that’s my own bugaboo.

    2. Elizabeth the Ginger*

      If it’s strongly relevant to the jobs you’re applying for, you could put it under your professional experience, but if not, I’d leave it under “Additional Experience” regardless of the profit/non-profit situation. For example, my last resume for applying for teaching jobs included my stint as manager of a breakfast kitchen under “Additional Experience” – I got paid for it, and it had transferable skills to teaching, but it wasn’t directly relevant.

    3. Koko*

      Even if they were legally supposed to be paying you, they still weren’t, which means it’s still a volunteer job. The main reason volunteer work doesn’t go in your professional experience isn’t determined by the org’s nonprofit status (or else none of my jobs would be considered Professional Experience because I’m a career nonprofit marketer). The reason for listing it elsewhere is because volunteers are not held to as rigorous or high standards as regular paid employees. Volunteers can do poor or substandard work and keep their volunteer position because their commitment and passion is appreciated; employees are expected to perform at a certain level or be fired. Putting the gig under your professional experience would indicate/suggest that you were held to the same standard and given the same level of responsibility as a paid staff person.

  11. TOC*

    I know this studio, too–several people I know have “worked” for them through their work-trade program. It never crossed my mind that this was illegal, since the value of the membership is much higher than the wage most of those tasks would pay. I wonder how they are legally reconciling that.

    I think you can list all sorts of things under “Additional Experience.” It doesn’t just need to be nonprofit volunteering, but anything else that just doesn’t fit into other places on your resume. Side gigs, hobbies that are relevant to the job opening, volunteering, maybe other past work experience too far back to include on your work history but had 1-2 accomplishments you really want to mention, training programs, professional honors…

    1. Christina*

      I’m not sure on the membership/wage part, but it was mentioned to me that the regular staff teachers have to account for a certain number of “free” students per class (which was also why visiting teachers were only at a small discount). That might have something to do with it.

    2. just laura*

      What’s interesting is that it might not be higher value– they are avoiding paying a wage, payroll tax, etc. etc. etc. That adds up.

      1. Beyonce Pad Thai*

        I’m really curious what happens when one of these ‘volunteers’ gets hurt on the job.

  12. NK*

    I would still ask them to sign an agreement stating the terms. In the event they try to avoid giving you what they promised, it will be good to have documentation of the arrangement so you have the threat of reporting them if necessary. Hopefully it would never come to that, but if you’re going to make a part-time commitment, this would give you some leverage in the event of a dispute.

  13. Emma*

    I’m glad to see someone raise this issue because it’s true, most people seem to be unaware of any laws governing the use of volunteers. It seems especially prevalent for small non-profits to be ignorant or willfully ignore the laws, when, as organizations which use volunteers on a regular basis, they should be well-versed in the area. It’s not at all unusual for places like small public libraries or other community organizations to rely heavily on volunteers, but on a state-by-state basis, even that volunteer activity is regulated. Typically, the number of hours they can work without compensation is limited, as are the tasks they can perform. For example, a volunteer might not be able to perform a task which is crucial to the operation… put another way, if the business could not operate fully and meet its mission without the work the volunteer is performing, that work must be paid work. I assume all states have guidelines for this type of thing, though I’m sure the guidelines vary.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Nonprofits are actually allowed to use volunteers in most of the situations where they do.

      The DOL’s position has been that people can volunteer for charitable, civic, religious, humanitarian, and similar nonprofits if they volunteer freely and without expectation of compensation, and if they are engaging in activities that constitute “ordinary volunteerism.”

      It does run afoul of the rules if they volunteers in a part of a nonprofit that engages in commercial business and serves the public (like retail stores and other businesses). In that case, they would be subject to the FLSA — but that’s not most volunteers, by far.

      1. Nonprofit professional*

        This is interesting to me. Are you saying that if a nonprofit has a thrift store, or the library has used book store, or other such arrangement, then the cashiers can’t be volunteers? They have to be paid staffers?

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          That’s my understanding of the regulation, but I don’t have firsthand experience with it so it’s possible that there are a bunch of exemptions from that rule.

          1. Nonprofit professional*

            There are so many nonprofits that have thrift store run by volunteers that it seems like there must be an exemption, but I don’t know. Either that, or a lot of people violating the law. My employer doesn’t run a thrift store or anything similar, so I won’t lose any sleep over it. Thanks.

            1. De Minimis*

              I’m wondering if a distinction might be made between thrift store/reselling used items and an operation where goods are purchased for re-sale. I would guess there would have to be, I know Habitat for Humanity operates their “ReStore” with volunteers and my guess is that the bigger nonprofits probably would know the rules…though that may not be a good assumption.

              1. Nonprofit professional*

                Agree about not assuming the big ones know the rules. Often times, they make assumptions and don’t bother to check with an attorney. Lots of libraries have used bookstores. You would expect the local government to follow the rules. But again, we probably shouldn’t assume. (It wouldn’t be the first time the government broke the law!)

                But you might be on to something when you talk about whether it’s a thrift store compared to some other business, like say if Habitat had a hot dog stand in the downtown area. Some nonprofits do have for-profit enterprises that are not remotely related to their mission.

                I do know that a lot of nonprofits try to force their employees to volunteer. For example, if Habitat made their regular employees (finance, development, etc.) volunteer for a shift in the Re-Store without paying them, that would be illegal. They have to pay them for working. *For the record, I’m not saying Habitat is skirting the law. It’s a hypothetical example.

                1. De Minimis*

                  I’ve noticed that in most of the places where I’ve lived, there’s a separate “Friends of the Library” type group that runs the book sale, the library itself is only semi-involved with it.

  14. IBX*

    Please delete this comment if it is too off-topic.
    A local pharmacy has “volunteers” that perform all sorts of duties. I’ve talked to them — they’re high school or college age kids who want to pursue pharmacy in the future. The ones that I talked to were not licensed pharmacy technicians. It made me incredibly uncomfortable knowing my medication could be mishandled. And to be honest, I thought it was horrible of the pharmacist to be taking advantage of these kids. I’m no longer a customer. Should I or could I do something about it? Should I keep it to myself?

    1. Burlington*

      Eh, that could definitely be a place where they are legit interns. Or not. But I don’t think there’s any reason to think it’s inherently horrible. I mean, a surgeon in training has to perform his first live surgery on SOMEONE. Same with any profession.

      1. Chriama*

        Agreed. I actually didn’t know pharmacy technicians were licensed. It could be that certain tasks need to be done under the supervision of a licensed pharmacist, but there are probably a lot of things they can do on their own.

      2. TL -*

        generally said surgeon is trained a good deal before his first surgery. These are high school and college students and they should not be handing meds or performing surgery.

    2. Merely*

      Pharmacy student here.

      Before I got into Pharmacy school, I “shadowed” / “volunteered” at an independent pharmacy, so I don’t think this is too strange. (My sister currently “volunteers” at an audiology clinic while she’s deciding whether or not to apply to audiology school in the future, so maybe it’s common in health care professions?) I understand that it may seem unsafe to have someone who might be under-trained handling your medications, and I don’t know what went on at your specific pharmacy, but everything I dispensed while volunteering was double and triple checked by the pharmacy technicians and the pharmacist. After all, it’s the pharmacist’s license on the line if there’s a dispensing error. I didn’t do anything more difficult than working a cash register or pulling a bottle from a shelf, verifying that it was correct with the pharmacist, and counting out pills.

      I didn’t feel taken advantage of; I felt lucky to have the opportunity to see what working in a retail pharmacy might be like before spending years in undergrad taking prerequisite courses and applying to pharmacy schools. I also had something to talk about in my application essays and had a letter of recommendation from the pharmacist.

      – Many states don’t require pharmacy technicians to be certified, so pharmacy technicians can also be “college age kids” with no special training beyond what they learn on the job.

      – These volunteers are not interns; a pharmacy intern is a student already enrolled in pharmacy school (and many states have requirements for how many years of schooling must be completed before intern status is reached).

      1. De Minimis*

        We have a lot of job shadowing here too [health clinic] so I’d guess it’s pretty common. Also, we are a federal government facility so my guess is if there were even a question about legality we wouldn’t be doing it.

  15. just laura*

    I never knew this– just thought it was kind of a bartering option. But once I saw the response it made sense.

  16. Bartering has worked for me*

    I have some experience in bartering. Companies are required to compensate you, but that doesn’t mean they have to pay you with money. They can pay you with money, bananas or anything you agree on.

    I work as a children’s entertainer. There are times when I trade my services for products or services the client has. For example, I have performed at family fun nights in exchange for free months at a gym. I have worked in restaurants and received part of my compensation in food gift cards. I’ve done this a non-profits and for-profits. Here’s the caveat: you are required to claim that as income and pay tax on it. For example, if you receive $1000 worth of free yoga classes, you have to pay income tax on the yoga classes.

    My CPA says it’s fine to get paid this way. Of course, my CPA is concerned about me. He’s not worried if it’s OK for the gym or restaurant or whoever. In other words, I know it is OK to get paid this way. I don’t know the laws about paying people that way. I don’t barter as an employee. I do it as an independent contractor. That might make a difference as well.

    Good luck with it.

    1. Elysian*

      You sound like an independent contractor. Independent contractors aren’t subject to minimum wage laws, so you can charge whatever you like for your services, including nothing at all. Employees are different; employees must be paid at least the minimum wage in cash. The yoga studio volunteer is acting more as an employee than an independent contractor, so she would have to be paid the minimum wage. In cash (not bananas).

  17. Meg Murry*

    Unless this letter is from December, my concern is that the OP is talking about working this year in order to receive a discount next year – does she mean start now but not receive the discount until 2016? It seems like a long time to essentially be working for “free”, and a lot of things could happen by then – the studio could close, the teacher training course could be canceled or rescheduled or its cost could go way up or OP could decide she just isn’t interested, or she could be injured and not able to take the class – all kinds of things could happen in a year. Also, when I hear “part time manager” I’m thinking 20 hours a week, with actual job duties like ordering supplies or bookkeeping, which seems like a lot of work for free training. If its actually more along the lines of “lock and unlock the doors in addition to running the check in station”, that’s a little different.
    I’d be concerned about working for all of 2015 for no (or minimal) benefit in order to receive a possible benefit in 2016, if this is the case – if so, OP should probably consider negotiting what her rate would be now (in $ or class comp time), and then what it would be once she starts the training class or just before it.

  18. OP Here*

    Hello everyone! Thanks a lot for your comments and responses.

    It is definitely common for yoga studios to have “work-trade” agreements wherein X number of hours allows them free unlimited classes or Y number of free classes per Z hours worked. I did know that this wasn’t legal, which is why I actually pay for the classes I attend with a studio membership and I strictly volunteer for my one shift (which is currently less than one hour per week). Also I wanted to note that we’re a pretty small yoga studio – we only open when we have classes and though some front-desk shifts are staffed by work-trade/volunteers, I know that our current manager (who I would be replacing) works about half of the shifts and is paid for them accordingly.

    Meg Murry is correct – I am talking about working this year to receive the discount for next year’s teacher training in 2016. The part-time manager position would be something around 10-20 hours per work, most of it telecommuting/remote – it would consist of answering emails, making phone calls, managing the other front desk staff. I’ll be meeting with the studio owner soon to work out the details, which is why I originally emailed Alison with my question about the work-trade.

    There has been some rumbling in our local community about the IRS going after yoga studios that misclassify instructors as independent contractors vs employees, but typically when people talked about this it was about yoga teachers/instructors, not other studio staff. I haven’t looked up the exact law itself, but this describes what I’m talking about:

    Given some of the new information I’ve learned, I’m going to pursue an actual paid wage instead. Of course a “discount” would be nice but realistically, regardless of whether I pay more later or work now and pay less later, it’s all the same amount of money. I also wouldn’t want the studio to get into legal trouble over this arrangement, and considering 10-20 is significantly more than the <1 I am doing right now, I do want to do this by the book to avoid any future issues.

  19. Dawn88*

    I’m with Meg. You should get paid for working, and will have the money to pay for the training class yourself….if you decide to take it. You should also get a discounted rate, too.

    Things change, you may grow bored with yoga, or get a chance at a better job. What if the Yoga Owner doesn’t hold the class next year, for whatever reason? What if she is injured, her studio goes under? Will you be paid in full for your hours worked? What if you decide to earn money mid year, and the Owner gets upset? You may have trouble getting what is owed. Being paid for working will eliminate all these concerns.

    If she is suggesting you would be good candidate for a “management” position (after being a volunteer), she should have mentioned it was a paid position, not you “insisting” to be compensated. A Yoga studio is a business, and I doubt if the Owner lets people take classes for free, or lets people delay their payments to her either.

    If she offers you the job, you should tell her promptly you decided you’d rather be paid, instead. No need to explain or give scenarios. Down the road, it will look better on a resume anyway.

    1. Alma*

      What happens if you, in your management role, sell blocks of classes, memberships, or products? Do you get commission or compensation for that?

  20. Cassie*

    The ballet studio I used to dance at would have intermediate/advanced students assist in the lower-level ballet classes (e.g. classes with kids from preschool to ~ 3rd grade) and in exchange for their time, their parents would get a discount on tuition. I guess you could say that it was some sort of training (in case they wanted to become teachers) but when I assisted, I got paid about $10 per hour. (I was over 18 then, but there were other over 18 dancers who didn’t get paid and got the tuition discount instead – although these dancers’ tuitions were paid by their parents). The studio was a for-profit.

  21. Poe*

    Can I just say as someone who used to be heavily involved in the sport/fitness industry as a coach/teacher and later as an administrator, please do not teach any classes as part of your volunteering arrangement (this applies not just to the OP, but to everyone) unless you are very clear on the insurance carried by your studio. Teaching/training people in physical disciplines can be dangerous, and finding out that you are not covered by the studio’s insurance following a participant’s injury can lead to some scary stuff.

  22. emma2*

    Oh wow – I did this all the time during grad school – I didn’t even think whether it was legal or not

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