can local businesses ethically accept volunteer help, are quick “thanks!” emails annoying, and more

It’s four answers to four questions. Here we go…

1. Is it ethical to accept volunteer help at my local business?

Half a year ago, my husband and I started our own business, known in the gaming community as an FLGS (friendly local game shop). It’s as much a geeky community center as it is a retail outlet. We host daily events for the community and in a short time we have been fortunate enough to attract a friendly, enthusiastic and loyal player base.

Earlier this month, my husband unexpectedly passed away, leaving me as the sole owner and manager of our business. Determined to see our project through, I decided to keep the store going, and to my eternal gratitude the community stepped up in truly amazing ways. Many kind and talented people have kindly offered to volunteer for shifts and to run events, for which I am eternally grateful.

My issue is that I am a recent immigrant and not innately familiar with how the U.S. handles volunteer work like this. (I am rapidly learning, of course, but this period of my life is a whirlwind of thousands of unexpected learning experiences, and there are only so many hours in the day.) Since the company is a start-up, money is tight. As much as I would love to pay everyone a fair compensation for their hours, that is just not possible right now. I am discussing all of this with a business lawyer who will make sure everyone is in the clear legally, but my question is more about U.S. work culture. Is it ethical to have people volunteer for work like this without offering pay? I do my best to offer them some perks I know they enjoy (free drinks and snacks, free event participation, store credit and so on) but it gnaws at my conscience to accept labor and not compensate people the way I feel they deserve, especially in this economic climate. I have looked up many examples of volunteer contracts and am uncomfortable with how one-sided all of them are. (As you may have guessed, I’m from a socialist national background). Is it ethical to accept volunteer work in these circumstances, in the understanding that I fully intend to hire people from this pool somewhere down the line when the business is out of the weeds?

Well, the bigger issue may be that it’s illegal. You’re required to pay people at least minimum wage, and they can’t legally volunteer for a for-profit business. You may decide that you’re willing to take that risk and do it anyway, and that they’re all fully consenting adults who can choose for themselves, but do be aware that it’s technically illegal.

Leaving the legality aside and focusing just on ethics … I tend to think that as long as you’re not promising them eventual paid employment and they’re very clear on what they are and aren’t getting from volunteering, they’re consenting adults who can decide for themselves if they’re happy with the arrangement or not. (And this kind of thing does happen; it’s pretty common in yoga studios, for example.) That said, my opinion would change if they were young (and thus not necessarily well positioned to understand the value of their labor), or donating a large number of hours (because that would feel more exploitative), or seemed to expect to be paid at some point (even after you’ve explained you can’t guarantee that).

The ethics argument on the other side, of course, is that they’re donating their time toward what’s ultimately a profit-making enterprise for you. And even if they feel personally invested in the community around your store, they’re still volunteering for free for something that’s earning money for you. You might decide you’re not comfortable with that. Or you might decide that you can compensate them in ways that feel fair to you both, even if it’s not in actual dollars. Different people will come down on different sides of this (but the law does not).

Read updates to this letter here and here.

2. Are “thanks!” emails annoying?

I have a question about email etiquette, though in the grand scheme of things it may be minor. I work in an environment that is very collaborative, and it’s my job and the jobs of several of my colleagues to share information with each other, usually by email.

When I came on board not too long ago, my trainer would handle emailing other colleagues for the data we needed. Once we received the information, he’d then reply with an email that thanked them for sending us it. I can see this being fine if it’s not a frequent occurrence, but a lot of what we do involves information shared via email, and the tasks are routine. This results in a lot of thank-you emails, which can clutter an inbox. While the recipient can always delete those emails, if these quick thank-you’s are unnecessary and don’t have to be sent, then it’s less for the recipient to have to go through.

My trainer left the company and now I’m the one handling the email correspondence. I don’t want to seem rude to my colleagues, but I know I wouldn’t miss being thanked for everything as it comes up. Can I stop sending constant thank-you’s or should I be keeping up with what my trainer would do?

It’s really up to you. Some people send them, some people don’t. Some people hate the inbox clutter, other people figure it takes two seconds to delete.

But be aware that those quick “thanks!” emails are often less about conveying thanks and more about confirming receipt and that you now have what you need. (I generally send them for that reason — to me it feels rude not to acknowledge receipt.)

3. Accepting a lower salary in a lower cost-of-living area

I’m currently getting recruited for a couple of jobs that would require me to move from my current location with a high cost of living to a new location with a much lower cost of living. With these jobs, I’m getting to the point where salary has come up and the managers have told me that they wouldn’t be able to match what I would be making here, but that they could offer a competitive salary for the area with a signing bonus or other perks to make up for it.

I’ve always heard you should never accept a position for less money or in a lower rank than what you currently are at, but what are the rules when there’s such a difference in how much you would pay to live there?

Note: I’m in a well paying field so I’m not concerned about making ends meet.

It’s pretty normal for this to happen when you’re moving and there’s a significant cost-of-living difference between the two areas. Jobs in high cost-of-living areas areas tend to pay more, sometimes much more, and you can’t expect the salary to stay the same when you leave for a lower cost-of-living area. You can use online cost-of-living calculators to get a good sense of the difference between two cities (which will show you how the buying power of a dollar differs from region to region).

I wouldn’t subscribe to a rule that says you should never accept less money anyway (sometimes there are reasons to do that, like that you’re moving into a new field, have much better benefits, are doing more interesting work, etc.), but it especially doesn’t apply in this context.

4. Is my former employer telling reference checkers I was fired?

I left my first post-college job about two years ago after a messy situation involving potential software safety issues that I felt had not been addressed appropriately. I became very depressed and my work started slipping as a result, so I ended up quitting before I could be fired. I didn’t think I was at that point yet — my performance wasn’t particularly good, but I knew there was a probationary program employees were put on pre-firing, and I was never placed in it.

At the time, I did what I thought was the responsible thing (since my girlfriend was depending on me to contribute to the rent) and applied for unemployment benefits. When the state employee in charge of my file called me to ask questions, I got the shock of my life when he said my old employer had told him I had been fired.

To the best of my knowledge, I was not. My manager thought I didn’t seem happy and asked if I wanted to continue working there; a few days later, I told him I thought I should leave. We agreed that I would leave after we finished working on the next release. The date the company had set for the release, more than a month afterwards, would be my last day. It was never suggested to me that I was being fired, and I felt I had more say in exactly when I left than my manager did.

After that unemployment call, I have yet to receive a single interview or call back from a job I’ve applied to. I realize this might be any combination of bad luck, bad resume, bad job targeting, etc., but I’m worried that, since my old employer told the state I had been fired, they might have been telling others who contact them the same thing. Is there some way to find out? (Calling them myself?) Was I fired, and I just didn’t know it? Am I just being paranoid?

It’s very unlikely that that’s why you’re not getting interviews, because most employers don’t call references before even interviewing someone (it would be a huge waste of their time to do that before they have finalists). It’s more likely that the issue is your resume and/or cover letter, as it is for most people.

That said, you definitely should find out what’s going on with your old employer, because it’s concerning that they reported you were fired when you weren’t. I’d contact your old manager and ask how they have your departure recorded and what info they’d release to reference-checkers. If you find out it’s inaccurate, you can point that out and ask them to correct it. (Worst case scenario, you might need to get a lawyer involved if they refuse, but this kind of thing can often be handled by a direct conversation, especially if it’s just based on a misunderstanding.)

As for the question of whether you might have been fired and not realized it … well, there’s a little grey here but not a ton. That conversation where your manager asked if you wanted to continue working there may have been the beginning of you being pushed out; if you hadn’t come back a few days later and quit, he might have made the decision for you. But he didn’t; he gave you room to quit, and you did. They certainly might be able to truthfully say that things weren’t working out and they were planning to fire you but then you quit, but it doesn’t sound like you were in fact fired.

Read an update to this letter.

{ 455 comments… read them below }

  1. Stellaaaaa*

    OP4: Semantics get weird here. You usually can’t get unemployment benefits if you voluntarily quit a job. That might put you in the state’s “fired/ineligible” pile, which is why the unemployment worker referred to you as having been fired.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Aha! Yes! This actually might have been the employer doing the OP a favor, since if they’d reported she’d quit, she’d have been ineligible for unemployment. I didn’t even think about that, and should have.

      1. Admin of Sys*

        Yep – I got ‘laid off’ once (and potentially saved someone else from a layoff) when I quit. They were going through everyone in the department, and to this day I’m not sure I was slated to be let go or not – but I handed in my resignation during the one on one before they said anything. At which point they offered me the layoff, which included some severance and unemployment. But if they’d just taken me as quitting, I wouldn’t have gotten either benefit.

        1. Natalie*

          The UI might have been allowable depending on your state – in my state one of the reasons a voluntary quit is eligible is if you were scheduled to be laid off within a month.

      2. Aitch Arr*

        Yup, that’s what I was thinking. The employer may have been trying to help the OP into being eligible for UI.

      3. SoCalHR*

        Was just coming to say this – they may have thought they were doing the guy a favor.

        The problem is, it is a favor when it comes to UI benefits, but not so much for the reference/employment verification side of things.

    2. Maddie*

      Yes. If you quit, except under extreme circumstances, you usually cannot collect unemployment benefits.

    3. Mookie*

      Yes, that part confused me so much. I’m surprised that the telephone conversation with the benefits officer didn’t help the LW understand (remember?) that this is so. LW, it doesn’t sound like you corrected the officer when they told you your employer was reporting that you’d been let go. Did you? You received your unemployment, yes?

    4. Sales Manager-ish*

      Came here to say this. At my job, we call this type of conversation being “quit-fired”, it sounds mean but it’s actually a pretty compassionate move: they give you the opportunity to transition yourself out, if you both agree that it’s time for you to move on. You can say you quit, but for unemployment purposes they will say you were let go without prejudice, so you qualify for benefits. I’m not really sure what they do about employment references going forward, though.

      1. Lil Fidget*

        TBH given what the OP describes I’m not sure it would be reasonable to expect a stellar reference in any case. This might be a good situation to ask that they just confirm your dates of employment.

      2. Security SemiPro*

        This is why the important reference check question is about eligibility for rehire. Would you want this person working at your company again?

        If it was a bad fit for that role, but they had good skills? Sure! If they had a bad attitude and didn’t like the idea of ding a job? No thanks.

    5. Jam Today*

      That was my first thought, too. UA isn’t available for voluntary attrition, the old employer might have been doing the ex-employee a solid by saying they’d been termed instead of quitting. The exception *there* is terminated for cause, but if they’re getting their UA benefits then that’s not what the employer claimed.

    6. BlueWolf*

      That’s a good point. I know someone who went through something similar. They sort of mutually agreed that they should terminate their business relationship, so they “terminated” him and gave him severance, but he was still eligible for unemployment.

  2. The Pie Maker*

    OP 2 – a while back I was in charge of curating inputs of upwards of 30 people. I had also felt people might get sick of me constantly sending Thank You for the Information e-mails, so stopped… Until I was yelled at by my boss for not acknowledging letters, so yeah…

    1. Blue Eagle*

      What I do is put the “thank you for ____
      -end” in the subject line of the e-mail with no text, so the recipient can read and delete it from their inbox without having to open it.

      1. EMW*

        I hate it when people change the subject lines of emails though because it messes up the conversation view of the thread in outlook.

        1. The Friendly Comp Manager*

          Except I don’t think you’d want to keep a bajillion thank you emails, the idea is that you can easily filter out the emails you do not need (unless you need “thank you” emails???).

          I personally fall into the camp that, unless it’s sensitive material and I am waiting on you for something, DO NOT confirm receipt. I will follow up if needed. I hate thank you emails, I probably have 200 of them in my inbox that I will never be able to sort and filter out, because most emails close with “Thanks, Name” or “Thank you! Name” so… to me it’s just clutter.

          What is better, to me, if you need a *confirmation* email, is to actually say “confirmed” in the same email thread without subject line, or perhaps another solution is “RE: Original Subject Line // Confirmed.

          IDK. There must be a better way for all of us to get rid of the unnecessary emails. I work in a Lean organizational culture, and if you are anything like me, you get 50-150 emails per day. Let’s say you get 5 thank you emails per day, every day. 2 second each. You’re wasting 43 minutes a year *deleting thank you emails*.

          1. The Friendly Comp Manager*

            I meant to say “without CHANGING the subject line”, third paragraph, middle of sentence. :)

          2. EMW*

            I’m not saying to send thank you emails for everything, but if I’m going to send them I will just reply in the body of the email.

            The way I use email putting it in the subject email does not save me any time since I can see the first line of the email when looking at emails.

      2. Emily K*

        I work with someone people who do this with EOM at the end of the subject line, but I’ve never quite understood its purpose. I still have to select the email in order to delete or file it, so the only difference is that when I select it I see an empty message instead of a two word message.

        I guess if I was getting multiple EOM subject line messages every hour it could make it easier to Ctrl+select to batch file/delete them? Is that the thinking? I would have to be getting so many more than I currently do for that to save more than 2-3 seconds of time a day, but maybe some people get that many.

        1. Washi*

          I think the idea is more that when you glance at your inbox full of emails, you can see what’s a quick question. And I think it’s partly time saving for the sender, since it’s basically like sending an IM if you don’t have to write anything in the body.

        2. Jules the 3rd*

          My email client has a view where you see the message when you select it, and a view where you don’t. In the second view, you have to click 2x to actually see the message.

          I switch back and forth between the views – v2 for 1st triage (hot prior conversations, subject tells me it’s deletable, etc), v1 for 2nd triage (deletable not clear in subject) then back to v2 to dig into daily normal level work. I get 200+ emails / day, and usually have to actively deal with 50 – 80, though some of those are 10-email-long chains.

          Most people seem to pick one view all the time.

          On thank yous: I send a short one if people need receipt confirmation (usually in the subject; the threads are at least near each other), and I make a point of sending 1 – 4 / year to my regular network + their manager, with multiple specific things they’ve done to make my life easier – fast responses, consistently accurate work, managing x workload, etc. Stuff they can use for their reviews or even resumes.

        3. Red Reader*

          Or you could set up a rule to auto delete anything with -EOM in the subject line, if you were so inclined.

        4. Beeboop*

          But you can see that you don’t have to deal with it with a quick glance. Also easier on a phone if you’re in a meeting or something.

    2. Oxford Comma*

      OP 2 – whatever you do, do not send “you’re welcome” replies when people thank you.

      1. uranus wars*

        Or the smiley face. I work with someone who does this ALWAYS and it makes my skin crawl.

        WHY must you do that?!?!? I want to scream.

        I also dislike her very strongly and try to minimize contact, so I realize this response is partly on me.

        1. Not A Morning Person*

          I get this, but I think of it as a “know your audience” kind of thing. There is one person who I know interprets those smileys as appreciation for her and she’s the only one I use them with when I thank her for something she’s done that makes my work life easier. Otherwise, I agree, just don’t.

          1. Oxford Comma*

            I don’t mind emojis. But I don’t want fifteen messages. “Thanks” is fine. I like being thanked. I like thanking people. But any kind of generic response to that is too much.

    3. michelenyc*

      When I say thank you it is my way of letting the person know I received what they sent. I used to say confirming receipt but it just say way too formal for what I do.

    4. Rebecca*

      I think this really depends on the culture in the office and what you’re actually being thanked for. The information I send is often actionable, and then if the recipients don’t do what they were supposed to, we can wind up needing the email-trail that I did provide the right info and that they did confirm safe receipt. I save my thank yous religiously, not that I work in a culture of acrimony or anything, but just in the spirit of CYA.

  3. SomeInternetRandom*

    OP4: [edited to remove reference to the company I think it is as per site rules – wow does this sound familiar, especially the language the OP uses – but maybe this is just a common thing] As has been pointed out, saying you were fired does help you get unemployment benefits. The company might even think they’re doing you a favor. Also, depending on the situation, the company might not even give out references – just confirm your time of employment.

    So I’d say just go with what you know happened. And critically examine your cover letter and resume.

  4. Hyacinth Bucket (Pronounced Bouquet!)*

    OP #1 – You mention hosting community events. Are they free to the public? Like something to draw potential clients in, rather than pay-to-play? That may be a good way to utilize volunteers, because you’re not directly making a profit off the community event, and you can have volunteers help with set up/clean up, corral participants, be judges, etc. That may be more okay ethically (and maybe even legally, but check with your lawyer).

    1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      That workaround is likely illegal. It is nearly impossible for a for-profit to accept “volunteer” labor, even for things like community events or fairs. Those activities are related to the for-profit’s business purpose (i.e., they constitute marketing and generating goodwill), and are almost always covered by the FLSA.

      Honestly, the underlying ethical question is, in my opinion, closely related to legality. We don’t allow people to volunteer for a for-profit because of the significant potential for exploitation (which is based on past and current labor abuses). The only ethical workaround, IMO, is if OP partnered with a nonprofit that provided a service or hosted community fairs/events, and neighbors volunteered for the nonprofit.

      1. OP#1*

        OP#1 here. I am actually very shocked to learn that this is just plain illegal, as preliminary talks with the lawyer had made it sound like this was a possibility. It’s likely that I misinterpreted her statements though, and that she intended to tell me this at a proper meeting along with other concerns. Obviously my head hasn’t been on straight lately.

        This fact settles the matter for me though. If it’s illegal, I won’t do it, and I certainly won’t be asking anyone to break the law on my behalf. I agree that the situation would be ripe for exploitation, even if I personally would never engage in something like that, and it’s a pretty solid law to have on the books.

        Side note: both your usernames made me chuckle. And I needed a chuckle. Thank you for your input!

        1. Akcipitrokulo*

          Personally I’d see running an event as your donating space to me … (used to do admin for parlour larp)… but if you’re not comfortable that’s cool. And if it may be seen as illegal probably worth giving a miss.

          TBH I see volunteering for a short time as our equivalent of filling a bereaved person’s freezer with casseroles…

          But you don’t need legal issues now.

          1. Specialk9*

            I would think OP could offer the space, to a group (say a Meetup group) led and run by volunteers, who are not OP. Then it’s not OP’s event, just them allowing people to use their space. When I did a Meetup board game group, we met weekly at a diner and it was a rule that everyone had to buy something, even if it was just a cup of coffee or such. Another board game meetup was held at a comic book shop, so this isn’t unusual.

            1. Turtle Candle*

              FLGS often do provide space for events (I have participated in many a board game club or tabletop RPG group that met in a FLGS), but the key thing there is that it’s not really a store event—it’s entirely organized and run by the participants. Very much like your “diner meetup” example. The board game club organizer or game master wouldn’t think of themselves as volunteering for the store, the store has no direct control over the event (beyond whatever rules are in place re: noise, mess, nuisance, etc.), and the most the store does beyond providing the space is to have a bulletin board or newsletter where people can look for players or advertise their board game night. (Sometimes we paid for the space, sometimes it was free-if-you-buy-a-coffee, and sometimes it was outright free, especially for small groups or off-peak times.)

              But that’s different than the store itself organizing an event using volunteer labor. It’s facilitating someone else’s event vs. running your own.

            2. Amber T*

              This! There’s a local Gamers Group that meets at a local board game/comic book shop, where the back half of the store is just rows and rows of tables. You’re required to buy a $5 voucher, which can go towards snacks or a game to participate in the Meetup, and in return the Meetup gets to use the back of the store for free. It’s a great way to draw people into the store.

              IANAL (and it’s great that you have one), but I can’t imagine a scenario where you have someone at the cash register or restocking shelves and not pay them (unless they’re a family member?). I’m sorry for your loss, and I’m glad your community is stepping up and wants to help!

            3. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

              Yes, exactly this! This would be ok by labor laws. The big distinction is that OP cannot host the event as an event being organized by their business. If an “outside group” wants to do it, then OP is effectively donating space to a third party, and although they’re legally on the line for any injury on premises, they wouldn’t violate labor laws.

              1. Agatha_31*

                The insurance issue was something I was wondering about as far as coverage – legality aside, if they have ppl. working who shouldn’t & get injured “on the job”, or steal from op, or hurt someone else… I wonder if the op’s insurance co would even be obliged to cover those situations.

            4. beth*

              I’ve been part of several groups with this kind of arrangement! I think the key difference is that the event is explicitly not run by the venue–the venue is just letting the event, which is run by entirely separate people, use their space. It’s pretty common, I think, for groups like this to encourage their members to patronize the venue; they want the venue to like them and continue letting them use the space, after all!

        2. Darren*

          Yeah this is a bit confusing it might be that you aren’t necessarily phrasing these things correctly, and people here aren’t necessarily aware of exactly how these things work.

          Typically what you are talking about is that you have space available and where people can run their own events (board games, D&D games, Magic the Gathering events) and where you occasionally run your own official events supported by employees at your store.

          What I assume has happened is instead of your “official” events the people at your store have stepped up to run these events themselves and you’ve been providing them with various perks (free drinks, store credit, etc) to help them run the events.

          Now I don’t know the legality of this is the US, but this is entirely normal in Australia and we have far tougher labour laws. I’ve run dozens of games at FLGS for decades.

          1. Lilo*

            I have seen that kind of thing at every board game store too, so I think switching official events to player space nights would likely be okay. I would avoid offering prizes and similar to make clear it is more a space thing. I think for sure having people stock shelves and run the cash register would be a clear no no.

            1. Lurker Who Games*

              Adding agreement here– it is very, very normal for game shops to have a space for people to play games, and people who volunteer to run games in that space.

              Just keep the “volunteers” out of the retail side of it.

              1. Gazebo Slayer*

                Another person from the gaming community here – game stores providing space always seemed more like a benefit for the players for me, too, especially in an urban area where many people have shared or tiny apartments that aren’t very suitable for hosting. They’d be paying a lot for a meeting room at a hotel/coworking space/whatever. And typically the game is under control of the players, and the game store has no say in which games they play, what happens in the game, etc.

                Running the register, stocking, etc. is quite a different matter.

                1. Antilles*

                  This, exactly. Letting people show up and use your space for games isn’t really “labor” in the normal business sense of the word. You’re not asking them to do anything for you and you’re not exhibiting any control over what they do (except for basic standards of decency, of course).
                  I read OP’s email as more along the lines of traditional ’employee’ work – having people volunteer as a cashier or handle the ordering of new games or stocking shelves or etc.

                2. Lavender Menace*

                  Exactly this. I’m a gamer too and have gone to many game stores to play games, but it always felt like a mutual benefit – I get a place to hang out, eat and play games that’s not my apartment, and the game store gets my traffic and the fact that I can’t resist walking out with a game or two every time I go there ;)

              2. AnonEMoose*

                Chiming in with agreement here, too. Our FLGS has space like this – sometimes they hold specific events (like when there’s a Magic: the Gathering release). Other times there’s just space for playing games.

                The store also uses the space for handing out the free comics on Free Comic Book Day. You could also (if you haven’t) check with local game companies or designers (if any) and offer them the opportunity to do demos in your space. Maybe see if there are local comic creators and let them do signings?

                The store also sells a small selection of snacks and beverages players can purchase, which seems to work out well.

                OP, I’m so sorry for your loss. (((HUGS))) if you want them.

          2. Perse's Mom*

            Many kind and talented people have kindly offered to volunteer for shifts and to run events…

            While it’s true that running events could be fine as a volunteer situation (with all the caveats others have mentioned), I’m guessing it’s the separation between that and shifts that raises the red flag of possible illegality as that term is usually applied to actual employment.

            1. Vemasi*

              Do you think people could work paid shifts as employees, and donate the money back to OP personally? Or if OP started a fund (such as, the September Event Fund) with a collection jar that they could donate it back to. OP would still have to pay employment taxes and whatnot, so they shouldn’t just wildly overstaff the store with volunteers, but if they were in a real bind for workers this could help out, with the people who are offering to volunteer.

              Also, perhaps someone in OP’s gaming community would like to put on a small benefit to help OP with bereavement costs. My relative owns a restaurant, and she frequently throws benefit concerts, auctions or events for the families of people in her network (local music and art communities), so I’m pretty sure that’s legal, maybe?

              Other than that, I agree with everyone that OP could give over control of the events to the community, and just donate the space. I’m sure out of everyone offering to step up, there’s someone who would be willing to spearhead an event or two.

              1. sap*

                They could probably do this if she sets up a fundraiser for bereavement expenses.

                However, she’d still owe payroll taxes on all of that, and depending on the volume of donations, potentially income tax.

                Honestly, this is a situation where I think the law is unfair; helping out your friend’s family business in the immediate aftermath of when the sole other worker dies is not what these laws are meant to deal with.

                Another alternative would be to bring one of your friends in as a part owner, and buy them out at an agreed rate once your crisis is over. Talk to a lawyer on that though. Not legal advice.

              2. Lavender Menace*

                That feels exploitative and weird, though. She’d have to be fair in her hiring, and what if she hires someone who later decides that they do not want to donate their funds back to the nonprofit (aka, work for free)? Does she fire them and hire someone else who is willing to donate their entire paycheck to the nonprofit?

        3. Wakeens Teapots LTD*

          First of all, I am so sorry for your loss. I was widowed young & my heart goes out to you.

          I am not 1000% positive that this can’t be made legal. If someone is ringing your cash register up and selling your products, or refilling your shelves to sell your products, that is not legal. Running events? Talk to your lawyer. For profit companies support charity events all of the time. If your business is participating in a volunteer staffed larger event (over which you have no direct control), that is a different thing. Talk to your lawyer.

          1. Logan*

            I know of someone in the US who created a non-profit charity in order to host a yearly event which they ran. The festival had vendors, of which their business was one, but they also had volunteers and corporate sponsors for the event. They kept very good track of the finances (there was no overlap between the business and event), and the festival never made money (it was something this person enjoyed doing), and it worked well that way. They discussed this with lawyers, so I assume that it was all legal, although I do remember them being very clear about what they were allowed and not allowed to do.

            I don’t know if the above set-up would be too complicated for the OP, however I also know that games-shops are becoming very popular, where individuals pay $10-20 / night for a seat at a table, and the shop sells a bit of food and drink (some have booze).

        4. Monty's Mom*

          OP#1, I’m not here to comment on the legality or ethics of your dilemma, although I certainly hope Alison’s answer and the comments help you out. I just wanted to say I’m sorry for your loss – you are doing amazingly well, from what it sounds like, and I hope you are also taking care of yourself and have a good support system around you. (I know it’s off-topic, but wanted to take a moment to acknowledge it.) Best of luck to you!

        5. Ralph Wiggum*

          “I certainly won’t be asking anyone to break the law on my behalf.”

          I’m pretty certain the possible legal issues would only be on you and not your volunteers.

        6. Reba*

          Hi OP,

          An anecdote: many moons ago I worked at an art related business. There was an internship like element to it in that I trained on their equipment, and I executed client work. I was “paid” in hours of access to the studio/equipment to work on my own projects. This did have a dollar value, as artists in the area would pay by the hour to come in and use the equipment. Years later, I was very surprised to receive a check from them! There had been a Dept of Labor investigation that determined they needed to pay all us volunteers. I’m not sure how they decided what amount should be paid — it was well below what minimun wage would have been — but they were made to pay something because they couldn’t have us doing profit earning work for no money.

          Now, this was a great experience for me in almost every way. Not exploitative. But not ok by the law.

          I hope you find a solution. Sorry about your spouse, and I’m glad to read you have some community support.

        7. John Thurman*

          One business model I’ve seen work for musicians is to rent the space for a few hours, and make the fee contingent. For instance, the venue gets the first $100 in ticket sales and anything beyond that is split 50/50 with the band.

        8. Nerdling*

          Hey, OP#1!

          First, I’m very sorry for your loss. I can’t even imagine what you’re going through, but I really admire your dedication to the shop and the community. A thriving FLGS can be a wonderful thing, and it’s not remotely easy (and it’s rarely profitable for the first few years). Thank you for wanting to make sure you’re taking care of them while they’re helping take care of you!

          Second, as folks said above, the legality is likely dependent on whether they’re helping you run sanctioned events like Friday Night Magic or free events they’re organizing on their own using your space. For the former, they would be working more as employees. For the latter, it may be that they’re able to volunteer because you’re just providing the location. When you sit down with your lawyer, make sure you get clarification there; that may have been the source of some of the disconnect to begin with.

          I hope you and your FLGS are able to survive and thrive. We need more folks like you out there intent on treating the community with respect (and more folks like those in your community who’re intent on helping you succeed). Good luck!

        9. AdAgencyChick*

          I knew the answer was going to be “it’s not legal” as I was reading the question, but cases like yours make me hate that this law exists. Is anybody better off if a small business that is beloved by the community has to fold because the owner wasn’t allowed to accept volunteer help during a tough time?

          As an aside: OP, it might make you punch a wall to know that the federal government that made this law hires squads of unpaid interns itself.

          1. Natalie*

            Laws have to draw bright lines around things, unfortunately. I’ve seen multiple small business that are constantly in a crisis, throwing events to try and raise money to pay their basic expenses. But the actual crisis is just mismanagement. I don’t think you can easily write a law that says “your crisis is okay, but that guy’s doesn’t count.”

          2. McWhadden*

            I think it sucks in this one particular case. And I wish OP1 all the best. But it’s a good law. It prevents exploitation especially of vulnerable groups like the young. And most people aren’t good hearted and unwilling to take advantage like the OP.

          3. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

            Honestly, the law is important and should be in place. There are thousands of small businesses that routinely violate wage-and-hour standards, and oftentimes the excuse is that they’re a small business, but the real problem is mismanagement or a non-viable business plan. The reason the rule is bright-lined is because there are too many employers that exploit their workers.

            There’s a strong distinction between for-profit and non-profit organizations, as well as between the private sector and public sector. The reason the government can rely on unpaid internships is because it does not have a profit objective—it has a service objective. Although many government opportunities underpay (or are volunteer-based), I truly think the anger is misplaced.

          4. Creag an Tuire*

            Is anybody better off if a small business that is beloved by the community has to fold because the owner wasn’t allowed to accept volunteer help during a tough time?

            The employees at other businesses that don’t have to compete with free labor are better off, yes.

            1. Nanani*


              Also the “volunteers” who get to not be exploited, even and especially if they are young/new to the workforce or otherwise don’t fully appreciate how bad it is to work for free

          5. Dragoning*

            I can’t imagine hating a law this important and necessary because of sympathy for one person.

          6. Seespotbitejane*

            I once worked for a small local business that accepted unpaid volunteer help in exchange for space that would normally require a rental fee. I was the only paid employee of the business and was warned not to tell people that the other people I worked with were unpaid. Let me assure you that though that was a beloved local institution it was shady as hell. I wasn’t allowed to take my legal breaks and I only got a raise when minimum wage went up. I was only allowed to sit down as long as it took me to eat my lunch. The job was punishing and I only stayed because it was the height of the recession and it was the only thing I could get in a small town.

            So while my heart goes out to the OP, who is going through a tough time and sounds like they’d make an exemplary employer, I absolutely cannot fault the law. It exists to protect people who are vulnerable to an employer’s abuse and I guarantee that most businesses that are making money off unpaid labor are cutting other corners.

        10. B*

          I am a little confused by this as well. I would go with your lawyer first and foremost.
          I am in the USA and there are plenty of places I know that have a lot of volunteers and may or may not have gotten everything in line to be a not-for-profit as a legal entity. I don’t know why it would be illegal for someone to donate their time to anything. Maybe the contracts are another issue but this is really perplexing to me.
          Caveat: I am NOT A LAWYER
          I did used to be active in several fandom and gamer spaces though, and a LOT of things are essentially volunteer run so I don’t see any issue (ethically) for people running events “for free” when you are providing the venue “for free”. That seems a fair trade; for many of us this is not meant to be work but fun.

          1. Natalie*

            It’s not illegal for a person to donate the time. What is illegal is a for-profit business not paying minimum wage. Since volunteers make $0, they aren’t making minimum wage, so the business is not following minimum wage laws. Letting people use the events space for free is likely completely fine, because they aren’t specifically doing tasks for the business.

            Small businesses break tons of labor laws, in my experience, often out of ignorance but occasionally out of a sense of justification that X or Y law isn’t meant for little ol’ me. Don’t take the behavior of small businesses as any kind of example of what might or might not be legal.

            1. Natalie*

              I feel like I should also clarify, it’s not illegal in the sense of “you will go to jail” – it’s more like, if one of your volunteers files a complaint, you will have to pay them backwages, possibly at 2x or 3x the rate, and your business records might get audited resulting in more back wages.

          2. Lil Fidget*

            The reason its illegal is because if not, employers would always be trying to get their employees to “donate” some overtime or “volunteer” to cover shifts unpaid. That being said, many small businesses do it anyway, for reasons similar to OP’s, and just hope that they won’t get caught. However, see the art store example above of what can happen if they DO get caught, even years later.

            1. B*

              It’s hard to reply to all; regarding employers automatically exploiting everyone, I get it, but there’s a cost to using volunteers instead of compensated employees. I think we hear about that a lot with not-for-profits; people who are paid can give a lot more time and stability than most volunteers.
              Similarly, salaried people can “donate” as much time as they like to an organization, but often there’s a balance between keeping them happy and staying.

              I tried looking up more on this
              I suspect there’s a little bit more to it than “it is always illegal to volunteer for something that is not a legal not-for-profit entity” but again, I’m not a lawyer. But I’m pretty sure people volunteer at nursing homes, etc, and it’s ok. The above definition where, basically, if your volunteers are taking the place of what should be employees, in order to get some kind of compensation, that’s no good, makes more sense than prohibiting any fan-run event at a commercial enterprise that isn’t not-for-profit.
              IDK, this is definitely been a educational experience for me! Not extremely relevant to my life right now, but good to know.

              1. ket*

                People don’t volunteer at nursing homes to lift patients, change their incontinence pads, cook dinner. They don’t/can’t volunteer for these functions that are integral to the operation.

              2. Ask a Manager* Post author

                It’s not just illegal for volunteers if they’re taking the place of paid employees. It is illegal to volunteer for a for-profit business, full-stop.

                The nursing home example is an interesting one! I wonder if it’s because the volunteers aren’t volunteering for the nursing home itself but instead are volunteering for the patients in a way, assuming we’re talking about people who volunteer to visit and cheer up patients. But I’m not sure.

                1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

                  In many cases, those nursing homes have nonprofit status, or the process of volunteering to provide elder care/support is managed through a third-party nonprofit.

                2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

                  I should qualify and say that some for-profit nursing homes allow/encourage volunteers, and they’re just straight-up violating the FLSA.

                3. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

                  Ooo, thank you for the link and to your friend for the additional info!

              3. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

                It is literally always illegal to volunteer for a for-profit business. Alison has a link to the specific DOL guidance, below.

          3. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

            It’s absolutely illegal to “donate” your time to a for-profit—this is a pretty bright-line labor law. As others noted, the policy rationale is that many businesses are exploitative and try to force their employees to “donate” time, when in reality, that request is so coercive that the employee cannot reasonably decline the “volunteer” opportunity. The goal is to protect those with less bargaining power and to ensure a minimum level of compensation and dignity.

            Donating space for people to run their own event is distinguished by whether OP is hosting the event as an extension of their business v. an external organization or group running the event. If it’s an OP-sponsored event, it becomes related to OP’s business purposes and triggers the FLSA. If it’s an outside group, OP is effectively making an in-kind donation and is no longer on the hook for wages (but could be on the hook for any liability from injury that occurs at their store location).

            1. Beaded Librarian*

              This is slightly off topic but I’m wondering if you could provide some information. How is it possible that the owner of Ironman Triathlon can use volunteers for their races if it’s illegal for for-profit businesses to use volunteers? It’s not a secret that they do and it’s very much discussed among triathletes as to whether or not it’s okay.

              1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

                It looks like they’re technically running the volunteers through the Ironman Foundation? It looks sketchy to me, but it’s hard to distinguish online whether WTC runs the volunteer program or whether the Foundation runs the program. In some cases, organizations that put together or govern sports qualify for 501(c)(7) exemption and are treated as nonprofits (country clubs, youth sports leagues, the NCAA, the U.S. Olympic Commitee), but the WTC is definitely a for-profit corporation.

        11. Creag an Tuire*

          Since you’re already dropping the issue, OP, I won’t be as vehement as my gut reaction was, but I will say that I disagree with Allison that it would be ethical to accept the free labor if both parties agreed to it. The reason it’s illegal for someone to “agree” to be paid less than minimum wage is that if one business got away with using free labor, the businesses that obey the law would be unable to compete economically, and would either go under or end up coercing their own employees to “agree” to waive their rights. So no, it is never ethical to not pay for labor even if the person agrees to it.

          (We allow some exemptions for non-profits because, in theory, these are entities that don’t actually “compete” with each other and fulfill a societal need that the market can’t fulfill.)

          1. Creag an Tuire*

            Though I’ll also add that, if your lawyer told you what you’re doing might be legal, go ahead and meet with her (and maybe take a friend if there’s a language/cultural confusion at play). It may be that what you describe as “volunteer work” is just somebody drumming up business for you by hosting weekly D&D Night at the FLGS, which is fine.

            1. Cafe au Lait*

              It might be that. A woman near me who owns a yarn shop had a rough pregnancy, birth and then recovery with twins. She closed her shop unexpectedly more than once because she couldn’t keep up. A regular organized a “shop in.” She polled people to see if they’d be willing to buy something from the store, suggested minimum purchase of $10. Once she had twenty or so individuals who were interested, the regular approached the store owner about holding special “shop in” hours.

              I heard that the event was a success. I think a $1,000 in product was purchased.

      2. Ideation machine*

        Could OP1 set up a nonprofit subsidiary to host the community events such as FALG/D&D/MTG nights? She would not be able to make money directly off of those events, but having a volunteer run them would at least free up her time to focus on for-profit endeavors.

        1. Thlayli*

          OP I’m so sorry for your loss. Hugs if you want them.

          Ideation machines idea might be an option that would even work longer term. I think you should discuss this option with your lawyer. Realistically since you are now the sole owner it’s unlikely you’ll be able to continue doing so many events and either running them yourself or paying people to run them. In the long term a separate non-profit entity that runs the events might be the best option. You would in effect be donating space to the non-profit and you could also participate in those events.

          This might even be what the lawyer meant when she said this could be done legally.

          Note I am not a lawyer nor am I American so I could be way off, but you should certainly discuss with the lawyer. Good luck.

          1. Stuck*

            I was going to suggest the same thing. Down the road you could consider starting a non-profit about community gaming so that you COULD have volunteers running those events, etc. You’d have to be meticulous about your record keeping. There are some fun non-profits like this already out there. Spielbound comes to mind.

            1. Specialk9*

              Meetup groups are easy to set up, and so long as OP isn’t a leader or member that should be ok. OP just opens the space to groups rather than hosting. It’s super common.

        2. BenAdminGeek*

          Yes, there’s a local comic book/gaming shop that runs the local Con, but there appears to be a separate structure, I’m assuming for the same reason. Volunteers to the Con get free access, etc. Volunteers don’t run the comic book shop’s registers. That’s a crucial difference in my mind, though OP’s lawyer may feel diffferent. They also allow folks to play D&D and tabletop games in their shop, though I’m not sure of the structure. OP: If you google “GraniteCon” you may be able to talk with our local shop and get their experience/expertise as well.

        3. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          OP could do this, but I think the easier/cleaner way to do this is to ask the volunteers if they’re interested in putting together these events as an outside group. Then OP would completely step out of the planning. The outside group would meet independently, decide when to host the evenings, plan the hosting process, and then ask OP if the space is free/available. If OP is ok with having the group host the event, they can then say yes/no and effectively “donate” the space for those events.

          The tricky part about creating a nonprofit subsidiary is that you have to demonstrate that it has an educational, charitable, scientific, or religious purpose, and that it has an independent Board of Directors. It’s also a ton of paperwork (generally, the less you pay in taxes, the more corporate and tax formalities you have to deal with).

      3. hbc*

        Huh. I once volunteered to help my kung fu instructor with a women’s self-defense seminar on a college campus. It’s strange to think that it might have been illegal even if he wasn’t paid. I think you can get into some weird territory the other way on this restriction—like if someone declares themselves dungeon master at one table, are they now performing work? If they spread the word to their friends about an event, are they soliciting business for you?

        I suspect if it’s Letter Of The Law illegal, no one goes after obvious non-exploitative violations like this.

        1. Dent*

          My husband volunteered for years as a taekwondo instructor (2-3 hours a week) in exchange for not having to pay monthly tuition to the taekwondo school. There were a ton of other folks who also had the same arrangements with schools all over the region. It’s pretty eye opening for me to realize the entire thing is illegal.

          1. doreen*

            The thing that always amazes me about that arrangement is that it’s so easy to make it legal- pay the instructor for the three hours a week and then charge him whatever that amount for “tuition”. There must be something else driving these “volunteer” arrangements, but I don’t know what it is.

            1. Natalie*

              Having employees is a bit more of a pain in the ass than that, tbh, which is likely why yoga studios and the like go for this. A lot of yoga studios pay the instructors on a contract basis, so they may well not have *any* employees. I do a little bookkeeping on the side for a friend that owns a small business, and when they hired their first employee we had to:

              – examine identification, fill out an I9, collect a W4 from the employee, and give them an ACA hand out
              – add them to the workers comp insurance and start paying extra insurance for them
              – enroll in online accounts with the IRS, state revenue agency, and state UI department so that we could withhold taxes from their paycheck and remit it to the government (which has to be done on a particular schedule), pay employer side of FICA, and pay unemployment insurance
              – file quarterly payroll tax returns and quarterly UI wage reporting
              – send W2s every year

              And that’s just stuff that applies to a really small business. Different laws (ACA, ADA, Title VII, local sick time or minimum wages laws) kick in at different numbers of employees, which I’m sure the yoga studios are trying to avoid. (Not legally, but they think that’s what they’re doing.)

                1. Natalie*

                  The direct costs aren’t even that high – a little under 8% for employer’s side of FICA, and UI and workers comp rates are partially based on how much the employee makes each month so they’d be low for part time employees, too. If you were paying someone federal minimum wage for 4 hours a month it might work out to another $5 in taxes and insurance. (The workers comp should be covering your independent contractors anyway, so a super part time receptionists wouldn’t add much by way of cost.)

                  I suspect most yoga/dance/martial arts studios just look at the paperwork and payroll set up and decide it’s too much hassle to make the arrangement legal.

            2. Lehigh*

              Well, in that case everyone loses a fair amount in taxes. If you get your 3 hours worth of free tuition, you’re happier and you feel it’s fairer than if you get some percentage worth of that in $$ and have to pony up the rest of the cash.

      4. Underpaid Mermaid*

        What is the difference between a “volunteer” and an “unpaid intern” in a for-profit business? Is it just semantics, or is there some legal difference between the two? Could that be an option that OP explores?

        1. Yorick*

          I think an internship has to have an educational benefit, not just be useful for the business.

        2. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Unpaid internships at for-profit businesses have to meet strict standards, the biggest of which is that it has to be primarily for the benefit of the intern, not the business.

        3. Victoria Nonprofit (USA)*

          Internships must follow very strict guidelines to be unpaid (at a for-profit institution). In short, they must be educational in nature, must primarily benefit the intern, and can’t complete work that would otherwise be done by a paid employee.

          It’s pretty hard imagine a legal unpaid intern being helpful to the OP.

        4. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          There is a legal distinction, and I don’t think it would be useful for OP to try to use “unpaid interns.” There’s a multi-factor test, including (but not limited to) that the internship is primarily for the educational benefit of the intern, and that the tasks assigned to an intern are not of the same kinds of tasks one would assign to a paid employee.

          The kind of “volunteer” work OP is describing would fail to conform to nearly every factor of the unpaid internship test.

      5. Hope*

        Can you reference anything from DOL where it states that “volunteer” labor for a for-profit is illegal? I know that it is but I can’t find it. Thanks!

        1. Admin of Sys*

          (I am not a lawyer) “Under the FLSA, employees may not volunteer services to for-profit private sector employers.”
          That said, the FLSA appears to only cover companies that operate interstate and/or pull in more than $500,000 a year, but unless all business is done hyperlocally, including purchases, then afaict counts as interstate. (

          1. Indefinite Contract Attorney*

            Interstate commerce is SO broadly defined that it’s basically a useless standard to go by.

            (CMA: This isn’t legal advice.)

            1. Gaia*

              Seriously. Interstate sometimes feels like it includes “have you ever heard of another state? Yes? Great, you are interstate.”

            2. Mechanical Engineer*

              I couldn’t agree more. See the SCOTUS decision in Wickard v. Fillburn for utter ridiculousness that is defined as “interstate” and “commerce” by the federal government.

        2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          It’s covered by the FLSA, which explains when its wage and hour provisions apply.

      6. post-it*

        This is shocking to me–I used to volunteer around running events that were hosted by a store. I don’t think there’s any charity or non-profit element to the store. Is this technically illegal?

        1. CheeryO*

          Same, I volunteer with a training group that meets at a running store and never thought that could be an issue. It’s not like I’m cashing people out, but the group certainly contributes to the store’s profits since people end up buying all kinds of stuff there.

          1. Natalie*

            Outside groups meeting at a for profit business is perfectly fine. Think of all of the meetings that happen at coffee shops – none of those people are working for the coffee shop just because they shop is letting them use the space.

        2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          If the store was the one organizing/sponsoring the events, then their failure to pay you was a violation of the FLSA and was illegal.

          1. Question*

            Hang on, though. For-profit businesses are allowed to sponsor non-profit events, right? And those non-profit events can have volunteers. Surely there’s got to be some kind of test that says the work the “employee” does benefits the employer’s bottom line?

            1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

              The test for for-profits isn’t whether the employee benefits the bottom line—the Department of Labor has a very bright line rule that says for-profits cannot have volunteers. Non-profits can have volunteers so long as those volunteers are not employees “volunteering” to perform tasks that would otherwise fall within their work duties.

              So the legal issue turns on whether someone is a volunteer of the nonprofit or a volunteer for the for-profit. What begins to look suspicious is when you have an employee who is “volunteering” for a nonprofit hosting an event, and the for-profit employee doesn’t have the ability to reject the volunteer opportunity.

        3. Librariann*

          This is extremely shocking to me as well. I have been volunteering anywhere from 3-10 hours a month for the past two years with a local eclectic shop. I receive store credit, and while I don’t operate the register, several other volunteers are trained to do so. I think there’s a pool of about 10 people who volunteer on a regular basis. Oy…

          1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

            Unless the shop is a nonprofit, this sounds illegal in the U.S., and all of you are entitled to minimum wage.

      7. Lavender Menace*

        Well, it’d be illegal if she was planning the event and directed the group to plan and execute it for her as volunteer labor. But it wouldn’t be illegal if she opened her game store for independent groups to use it for free. Lots and lots of friendly local game shops do this.

    2. Tamz*

      In the UK and Australia, it is absolutely OK to accept volunteer help in a for-profit, with strict rules.

      One of those is that the volunteers *CANNOT* be paid, not even a penny. You can cover expenses and so on, but if you round up something like a bus ticket to the nearest dollar, you can be done for it. Check with your lawyer -personal gifts, food, expenses, discounts are probably OK. Anything that is akin to transaction of money is probably not.

      Other rules relate to the nature of the work being done. So if the volunteers host a board games night, that’s probably fine. If they volunteer for a special occasion or task (eg: redecorating the shop) that’s probably fine. If they look after the shop for you one morning, that’s almost certainly not OK, because it’s work that is core to the business.

      1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        Yes, but OP is in the United States, and what they’re doing is 100% illegal under U.S. law. Hosting a board game night on one’s own volition could avoid violating labor laws, but redecorating the store or volunteering for a special occasion or task would be illegal.

        1. B*

          I really don’t think you can say it’s 100% illegal based on what’s in this letter, and the fact that OP has an actual lawyer saying it’s probably OK? At best I get a “tread carefully, consult a lawyer who knows their stuff” message.

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            Having volunteers do to the work of running the store (running the cash register, stocking shelves, serving customers, etc.) is 100% illegal. Hard stop. There’s no grey there.

            But there are probably ways to make the game nights legal, which have been discussed a bunch in in the comment section and which might be what the lawyer is referring to.

          2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

            I can 100% say that this is illegal based on what’s in the letter, and that’s exactly what I am saying.

            I’m a lawyer who practices in this area of law and who frequently counsels small and community-owned businesses on volunteer v. employee v. owner v. intern issues, as well as on how to structure their work to comply with labor laws. OP has indicated they’re consulting a lawyer, but not that the lawyer has signed off on the full range of activities described in the letter. If their lawyer said it’s ok for people to “volunteer” to cover shifts, OP should fire their lawyer, because that person is not competent to provide legal advice on wage-and-hour law.

            OP has described their volunteer as “volunteering to cover shifts,” which indicates that they are literally doing the work of running the shop, assisting with stocking, etc. And if they’re coordinating events on behalf of OP’s business, that also falls within the scope of conduct covered by the FLSA.

            The events issue may be resolvable, but “covering shifts” 100% violates federal wage-and-hour laws. There is truly no gray and no uncertainty regarding the legality of what OP has described. Arguing otherwise is a disservice to OP and places OP at continued risk. The penalties for failing to pay wages are greater than the cost of the actual unpaid wages, the insurance and out-of-pocket liability if a volunteer is injured is significant, and because OP is an LPR, they have to be careful about immigration regulations/laws as well.

    3. Jules the 3rd*

      My local game ship has games multiple nights. The people *running* those games are volunteering, I think, while the shop donates the space / sells refreshments / sells figurines (lots of figurines… like the hobbit wizard in 3 poses… little Jules is saving up for all 3).

      My understanding is that’s not illegal, because running the games is considered a variation on playing them.

      So, some things your community is doing are probably ok, Some things (running a cash register or holding down a shift if you’re not there) are not. Look into shorter hours if you can’t afford a part-time employee. Ours runs from 11a – 8p except on Sun (1 – 6) and game nights (to 10p). You *might* be able to set up a honor box for refreshments on game nights and leave, but you couldn’t leave someone ‘in charge’ without paying them.

      So very sorry for your loss, and best of luck to you.

    4. Hey-eh*

      My sister for many years did an energy exchange with a local yoga studio. She got free yoga classes in exchange for signing people in, accepting their payments, and cleaning the studio. I’ve heard of lots of people doing this, usually at yoga or pilates studios but I could see it being used at a game store like this.

      1. Natalie*

        While this is really common with yoga studios it almost certainly isn’t legal unless the studio is organized as a not for profit. The reason it persists is that none of the volunteer workers files a complaint.

        1. Turtle Candle*

          A local dojo had a “free lessons if you clean the dojo” thing going on and actually did end up in trouble for it, despite that kind of arrangement being really common. I think what happened was the person involved was young (though adult; 18 or 19?) and doing a LOT of work (to impress their sensei—a dynamic that easily can become exploitative), and their parents made the complaint. But yeah, it’s really common but that doesn’t make it legal.

          1. Turtle Candle*

            (The parents had also done clean-the-dojo work previously, to be clear, which I believe is why they could complain. They just didn’t see it as an issue until Kusu was working something like thirty hours a week “to help sensei,” at which point the problems became clear.)

      2. DataGirl*

        This happens a lot at dance studios too. Moms volunteer to run the front desk, make costumes, take photos, etc. in exchange for free dance classes for their kids.

      3. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        This is common at many exercise studios (dance, yoga, pilates, dojos, etc.) but is almost always illegal. Unless the volunteers complain to the DOL (which they rarely do), these groups are not caught. But the underlying set-up is illegal and opens the studio up to significant liability (unpaid wages, backpay, and sometimes punitive damages).

        1. DataGirl*

          I’m just curious if legally, one could argue that the cost of the classes the volunteer is receiving is pay? I’m really only familiar with dance studios, but in that situation the moms I know who volunteer do so because they cannot afford to have their kids in dance otherwise. Could the studio argue that the cost of class (sometimes hundreds of dollars per month, depending on how many kids, how many classes, if the kids compete) is equivalent to a salary? Of course then there would be the issue of not paying taxes, benefits, etc. As others have said though, it would be very rare for a volunteer to complain since they are benefiting from the situation themselves.

          1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

            Exactly what Alison said. The FLSA is clear that you cannot be paid “in kind” (getting to take free classes is the equivalent of a barter)—you have to receive money. And as you noted, the studio is also committing tax fraud by failing to pay the moms.

            If they wanted this to be above-board, they would pay the moms at least minimum wage for their work, and the moms would then use that money to pay for their children’s classes. The FLSA doesn’t allow for-profit employers to skip the interim step and automatically apply what should be someone’s wages to the cost of procuring a service from the for-profit.

            The DOL doesn’t have the bandwidth to enforce wage-and-hour law unless someone makes a complaint, but the legal and financial risks are very high if anyone does file an administrative complaint. I’ve seen several business shut down because they failed to pay wages to “volunteers.”

        2. Seespotbitejane*

          This is interesting because when I first read the letter I was like “Nope, that’s illegal” but then I remembered I did a thing like this when I was a kid? Like 11 or 12. I took riding lessons and the stable owner would let kids muck out stalls in exchange for lessons. She did “pay” us an hourly rate and I think it was around minimum wage at the time but it was an “hour’s work knocks $7 off your lesson” type arrangement.

          I want to say “Surely *that* wasn’t illegal” but I’m pretty sure having underage children give you unpaid labor is more illegal than letting adults do it, not less. This was also 20 years ago so maybe the laws were different then.

          1. Vemasi*

            All these scenarios have made me do a lot of thinking.

            Like, if the stable owner set this up differently, could it be legal? For instance, could mucking out the stall of the horse you use be part of the lesson (like how you have to put away your saddle and brush down the horse, how pre-schoolers have to clean up their classroom at the end of the day, how people who use coworking spaces have to leave a tidy space), and there is a higher rate if you don’t, effectively giving a discount to people who muck? Could all these dance studios require students to do quick spot-cleaning at the end of the lessons, to cut down on the need for volunteers to clean?

            Not that I think you specifically would know, these thoughts just keep occurring to me.

    5. Decima Dewey*

      I was surprised at it being illegal. A local used bookstore owner had a serious health issue and regular customers volunteered to keep the store open while he recovered. Area media framed it as a heartwarming story. So mileage may vary.

      1. Natalie*

        It’s not the kind of illegal that’s going to get the police showing up at your door. An uncompensated employee would have to file a wage complaint and then the state department of labor handles it.

        1. RS*

          Yes, this is the main issue– not that the police will get involved, but that anyone who donated labor can retroactively sue OP for wages (and they’ll win). Yoga studios (as Alison pointed out) and similar businesses often aren’t aware of the liability, but if the volunteers become aware of the law in the future, they can absolutely demand back payment. Since no records were kept on how many hours were worked, this can get expensive quickly. We’d all love to think that wouldn’t happen and that these are simply kindhearted people who want to help OP in a time of need– and that’s probably the case. It can also, unfortunately, happen that people get into pretty desperate financial circumstances– and when that happens, who knows. They may decide to sue because they really need the money.

          1. Turtle Candle*

            As I mention elsewhere, a similar issue brought major trouble to a local dojo (and may have shut them down).

      2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        Unfortunately, that was illegal as well. It’s not criminal law illegal, but it violates the FLSA unless the bookstore was a nonprofit (some are).

      3. whingedrinking*

        * puts on philosopher hat *
        Illegal and immoral aren’t the same thing. In any community that’s too large to be run on a consensus basis, we have laws in order to keep society more or less on the rails, not to be the final arbiter of all morality for everyone. Laws do, in many cases, support moral principles like “rape and murder are bad”, but that’s not, broadly speaking, what they’re for.
        In this case, we can agree that the situation the law was created for – employers exploiting workers by under-paying them – is different ethically from the situation the OP is in, but that doesn’t mean the law isn’t the law and that there couldn’t be legal ramifications for what they’re doing/allowing to happen with their business.

    6. FormerPA*

      I’m so intrigued by unpaid help being illegal across the board in for-profits. There are a few industries (TV, film, theater, possibly publishing? – all for-profit companies) where working unpaid (I hesitate to call it “volunteering” or even “interning”) is how you start out, and it’s seen as “paying your dues.” It’s a common practice (or at least it was 10 years ago, maybe it has changed) to hire unpaid assistants to run errands and do all kinds of crap, in exchange for food, drinks, admission to parties, etc. As the unpaid worker, the hope is that if you’re good enough, at some point they’ll start paying you.

      I understood when I worked in the industry that it was not right, but I figured there was some way they were justifying it. I wonder now how they got around the legal issues. I wonder if indie films and TV shows can pass themselves off as a non-profit since they haven’t made money on it YET?

      1. Natalie*

        “Non-profit” doesn’t have anything to do with the company’s income statement, it is a specific type of legal entity, different from a profit-making entity like a business. The alternative name, not-for-profit, might be a little more intuitive – the purpose of the entity is something other than generating profit. It’s perfectly possible for a not-for-profit organization to have revenue exceeding their expenses – for example, many hospitals, universities, and insurance companies are organized as NFPs. The difference is that they can’t distribute that profit to the owners of the organization, the organization keeps it.

        Restaurants get around the legal issues by simply ignoring them. Since FLSA enforcement largely depends on worker complaints, it’s fairly low risk on the business owners part. I would imagine the TV & film industry is similar.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          And to build on what Natalie said, you have to be legally recognized as a nonprofit and there’s a process you have to go through to make that happen. So you can’t just say “oh, we’re making movies not for profit but for love of film” and then call yourself a nonprofit and use volunteers. You’d have to actually get official nonprofit status from the government.

  5. ENFP in Texas*

    “But be aware that the purpose of those quick “thanks!” emails is often to confirm receipt and confirm that you now have what you need.”

    This. It’s to acknowledge that you got the email and don’t need further info. It’s a “close the loop” exercise, and it is generally better to acknowledge receipt than to leave the sender wondering If you got it.

    1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      Yes. This is hw I use them. And, if the responses pile up, they’re easy to delete. The commenters always split on whether it’s advisable to send thank you emails of this nature, and it all comes down to your workplace’s culture.

      1. Mona Lisa Vito*

        OP 2- Is the group that you are responding to typically from the same pool of people or is it a wide range and not very regular? If it is a regular/common group, could you ask them what their preference is or ask the manager of that team? Maybe they like the acknowledgment or maybe their particular job function receives a lot of email and would prefer to go without? You might get a clear preference from them which would clear it up for you.

        1. OP #2*

          It’s typically with the same groups of people. I find that I’m not as hesitant with a wider range of people who I don’t email frequently because 1) It’s irregular and I’m sure they’d want acknowledgement on their one-off issue and 2) if it’s a one-off issue and we don’t exchange that many of them, then there’ll be fewer emails cluttering the inbox.

          I’ll bring up the question of their preference to see what they’d prefer. I also am of the opinion that if you’re sending me information that I need to turn around and send back to you (and can do so rather quickly), I’ll hold off on sending the thanks until I have work product to return and do both the “thanks!” and the “here’s what you need from me” in one fell swoop.

          But I do see Alison’s point and the point of a lot of commenters about how it’s more of an acknowledgement, and appreciated in most circumstances (although there are those who find quick thanks emails to be unnecessary). If it’s work that’ll take some time to complete, I’ll definitely use this advice to send thanks to acknowledge receipt.

      2. OP #2*

        One detail I should mention is that our inboxes have a size limit. At my last job, whenever we’d “run out of server space,” we’d get nastygrams from IT saying that we needed to reduce the size of our Documents folders and our Outlook inboxes. But they never actually put restrictions or took any action on these notifications.

        At my current job (only my second job post-college, so not a huge variety of corporate cultural experiences to draw upon) we actually have limits on how big our inboxes are. I just received a “failure to deliver” the other day from someone copied on an email, whose inbox was full and couldn’t receive any more messages. We do have archiving enabled, so that’s an option, but even the archive has a size limit (I think, though I haven’t reached it yet). That’s why I’m hesitant to send emails that might be unnecessary. But as a lot of people point out, the thanks are acknowledgements and the recipient can just delete the message when they’re done.

    2. Fergus, Stealer of Pens and Microwaver of Fish*

      Yep. I’m a big fan of the “thanks” email. Not so much of the “you’re welcome” reply to it.

      1. Sherm*

        +1. If “thanks!” is a friendly way of saying “message received,” then “you’re welcome” is a friendly way of saying “your ‘thanks!’ message was received,” which I don’t need.

      2. Not thankful for this*

        I do not need “thanks” emails further clogging my inbox. I receive hundreds of emails per day. All the “thanks” mails do is risk the important ones getting buried on the trivial ones. And if you don’t get a “thanks” email, do you assume the message hasn’t been received? Of course not.

        1. Airy*

          I don’t assume but I may wonder and if it was about something important I may be concerned. I think this is one of those things where if you have a strong personal preference it’s better to express it directly to the people you correspond with than to be annoyed that their preference is different.

        2. Thlayli*

          It’s not that you assume it hasn’t been received, it’s that you assume it hasn’t been read. Some of the people I email are like you and get hundreds of emails a day. A quick “thanks” from them is acknowledgement that they have in fact seen the email and it hasn’t been lost in a pile of unopened emails.

          1. Alton*

            Agreed. I’ve e-mailed people about important things and later found out that they missed the e-mail or forgot to act on it. I also send a lot of e-mails where it’s very possible that the recipient could have questions. So if I don’t get an acknowledgement, I have to weigh out if I need to follow up (which can waste more time).

          2. Kittymommy*

            Yep. I monitor 6 email accounts for work, all of which recieve a ton of emails a day. The thanks is notice of reading, not that it showed up in the inbox. I appreciate the same thing from my colleagues.

            1. Lil Fidget*

              Yeah, not to be a jerk, but the “thanks” email is especially great from busy people who are going to come@ me in six months saying I never sent them something. I can go through my inbox and find their acknowledgment that they received it.

        3. Turquoisecow*

          If the person who used to receive the email (OP’s predecessor) sent thank you emails and OP doesn’t, it might cause some confusion over whether OP got the email, whether it’s in a good format, doesn’t contain errors, etc.

          Depending on the type of email, I often use a “thanks” response as confirmation that I sent what the person was looking for.

          Also, if “thanks” emails were received before, and if they’re part of this company’s culture, OP may come off as a little rude for not sending it. I know I certainly appreciate people who wrote back a quick “thanks!” when I sent them an email with some data they requested. People who don’t, I wouldn’t say I’m *hurt* by it, but they definitely feel colder.

        4. Teapot librarian*

          Honestly, I work with people who aren’t consistent about reading their emails; I hated the “thanks” responses until I found that I couldn’t trust that certain emails had been read. Now I appreciate them.

          1. uranus wars*

            I am completely neutral on the Thanks.

            BUT…in my experience “thanks” just means “I got it”, not “I read it”…as witnessed by people who reply a week later to the email with the information attached asking when I am going to send the information. That they thanked me for when I sent it originally.

            It’s maddening but I also realize it’s always the same 10 out of 2500+ I sent the emails to so I overall it’s a low instance of extreme eye rolling. The other 2490+ don’t even send the thanks. They just roll with it.

            1. a1*

              BUT…in my experience “thanks” just means “I got it”, not “I read it”

              I was just about to comment this same thing. It’s just acknowleding that I they got the thing, it doesn’t mean they read it. And if they read it, it doesn’t mean they won’t forget about it.

            2. So long and thanks for all the fish*

              Like Alison says, it’s more of a loop closer- like, “you did your part- ball’s in my court now”.

            3. Cassie the First*

              I used to send “thanks” emails to mean “I got it” but it drove me batty to have to email the person back later (after having already emailed a “thanks”) because the info they sent wasn’t enough or wasn’t what I was looking for. Now, I wait until I actually have time to look at the email and make sure it’s enough – and then send “thanks” to mean “I read it, and this is all I need”. It does mean that I sometimes can’t respond right away, but I figure it’s better than having to send a “thanks” email and then a follow-up email later.

          2. Specialk9*

            Yeah, it’s like a read receipt except that read receipts are enraging. Which apparently for some people is true of thanks emails too.

        5. Lauren*

          Also, most people don’t need a ‘reply all’ – thanks. I swear some people do it just to show they are working and right on top of emails. If your job is so precarious that you have to manage up to keep your job by saying ‘thanks’ in under 0.02 seconds – you are annoying people who have 100s of emails to go through, and its a time waster. I don’t understand the need to have a – look at me! “thanks”. Do you your job by adding value. If you have a question fine, but don’t ‘thanks’ me, then ask a question 3 seconds later, then add another thought in a 3rd email. Read the first email thoroughly and only respond if you are truly adding value. Asking me if I’ll be on a call that is on my calendar is redundant too. Assume everyone reads email and knows you are thankful for them doing their jobs. No need to add to the 100s of emails people get daily.

        6. Antilles*

          And if you don’t get a “thanks” email, do you assume the message hasn’t been received?
          Depends on how important it is.
          For something time-sensitive or critically important? Absolutely. In fact, if you haven’t responded in a reasonable time-frame, I’ll often even go a step further and pick up the phone and call you to follow up. The potential downsides of an important email getting lost in the ether / sit unread in your inbox are way too big for me to just roll the dice and hope that you got it.

          1. Decima Dewey*

            My Grandboss will always sends a thank you email, so she doesn’t send one, I assume she hasn’t seen it. She also notifies everyone if someone else is covering for her that day, so I send a thank you email to whoever is covering and copy her so she’s aware of the issue.

    3. Christmas Carol*

      In my company, a Thank you, I rec’d your response is handled by appending “Thank You”, or even just “TY” to the subject line of the sending e-mail to reply. This way, you don’t even have to open the e-mail to read it, just make the mental acknowledgement that your information was received, and hit delete.

      1. Calpurrnia*

        Personally I’d be annoyed by this whereas I wouldn’t be by a normal reply with “thanks” in the body, since changing the subject line means the message won’t thread with the previous conversation. Are you thanking me for the monthly report I sent you and ten other people yesterday, or the one-off request you specifically asked me for the day before? Keep the subject line the same, then it threads properly and doesn’t “clutter” my inbox to begin with.

        I guess this depends on your personal inbox organization, but I don’t know how people can function with non-threaded emails (I’d be constantly searching for the previous conversation to figure out what they’re responding to)!

        1. Emily K*

          Ha, this reminds me of a board member at a former job who drove us all crazy because he changed the subject line every time he replied and typed his entire response into the subject line. We joked that his email (which was something low rent like must not have a message body area in their client.

          I’ve never found it to be significantly faster to read 8 words in a subject line vs 8 words in the body of the message.

          1. Calpurrnia*

            Holy cow, that’s “auto-delete filter”-worthy in my book. How are there functioning adults in the modern world who are this bad at email?! Wow.

          2. How is it even readable by just typing everything in the subject line of the mail*


            typing everything in subject line is not done :p

        2. Christmas Carol*

          No, it threads just fine. Outlook connects it to the proper thread because it knows what I replied to (from?). As for not knowing what the original request was, can’t you tell from your own subject line? Besides, I’m probably not going to bother thanking you for a monthly mass distribution of a regular report anyway.

          1. EMW*

            I don’t see them show in conversation view correctly in Outlook when the person changes the subject line.

            1. Pathfinder Ryder*

              Same – I’ve one person who puts the date in his subject lines (????) and it doesn’t end up in the original thread.

          1. It'sNan*

            Yup. It confuses me. I hate threaded email. I’m always afraid that if I need to send a piece of it somewhere or reply to the wrong people if I need to only respond to certain people. If they all come through individually, I know I’m always in the right spot for what I want to reply to or send on.

          2. Sometimes Wallflower*

            I don’t. It looks cluttered and it’s harder for me to scan. I am so used to emails ordered by date/time received since that’s how they’ve been presented to me since the 90s that now it’s just how my brain processes my inbox “at a glance” most quickly. If I’m part of a very large conversation spread out over a long period of time I will occasionally switch to the threaded view to review it, but I prefer to see things strictly in the order I received them, not by conversation, and flat – no indents etc.

            1. Risha*

              This. Also, it makes it easier to get rid of emails where I only actually need the contents of the final email in the thread and maybe a couple of intermediate side conversations. In a threaded view the deleted ones typically still show up.

            2. Specialk9*

              Yeah. Thread can hide important earlier messages, and I need to see the lastest emails. I do it by time too.

              I had a manager who sorted by people. He never saw my emails. It was so frustrating.

          3. Cruciatus*

            I hate it. IT tried to foist it on me when I started and I was like “take it off! take it offff!” I was just thinking earlier about how I can’t believe there are people who prefer it! I even watched videos about it to see what I was missing. Turns out–nothing.

          4. Baby Fishmouth*

            I don’t like threaded emails – my brain works chronologically, and it’s what I’ve been used to with every email program I’ve ever had. Since previous emails are almost always included in a reply, it’s not like I often need to go check other emails to see what’s going on. I just scroll down the most recent email.

            1. Birch*

              Interesting! Just goes to show it depends on personal styles and also what kind of emails you’re dealing with. This is the exact reason I insist on threading–otherwise, I end up with 30 different versions of the same conversation and all the other recent emails are so far down the inbox that I’m liable to miss something!

            2. EMW*

              This only works if everyone replies all only to the most recent email. I often have an email that I send out to a group, and then each person will appropriately reply just to me with their response. I like threaded view for this reason, but I was raised on gmail. I think people who grew up on gmail prefer threaded view for email.

              1. Emily K*

                Time and again I get burned by my efforts to be conscientious about not emailing people needlessly. I think I drop and add names way more often than other people and thus other people don’t ever look at whether the people in the To field have changed.

                Earlier this week, an email was sent to a group of 6 informing us that 2 people would not be attending our regularly weekly check-in that afternoon. Later that morning, I needed to send an update that we’d lost our meeting room and would need to join from our own offices, so I replied all and dropped the two people who weren’t attending from the To: field since they didn’t need the info. After the meeting, one of my colleagues who did attend replied all to share some documents related something that had come up in the meeting, which all 6 of us needed, without adding back in the two people I had dropped earlier – I guess just assuming that because everyone was on the first email they would all be on the second one too and not noticing I’d removed them.

                The converse of this is how many times I find myself one of 3 or 4 managers CC’d on what turns into a 20-email back and forth entirely between the same two ICs hashing out in the weeds details of a project, like grammatical copy edits. It always feels vaguely rude to reply “please take me off this email chain, I trust you to do your job competently and alert me if my input or authority is needed,” though the more promotions I get the more people I feel comfortable saying that too.

          5. Former Admin Turned Project Manager*

            My email at work defaults to not threaded. There is probably a mechanism to change it, but I’ve left it alone to allow my messages to stay in chrono order and easily searchable by sender instead of topic (I have a lot of colleagues to will reply to one email with conversations about a separate topic as well, which can drive me nuts when I have multiple projects going with the same people). My person email defaults to threads.

          6. uranus wars*

            Another non-threader here. I’ve missed one too many important emails that get lost in the thread.

          7. Seacalliope*

            My entire office freaked out when the default was switched to threaded, so yes, weirdly enough. I love threaded view but plenty of people cannot tolerate it.

          8. The Other Dawn*

            Yup. Amazing, isn’t it?! I absolutely hate threaded emails. Whenever I use a program that’s threaded, I change the settings. I found threading useful maybe once, but for the most part I find that I miss stuff and specific messages are harder to find.

          9. ENFP in Texas*

            I hate threaded emails. I’m a strictly chronological person when I’m going through my Inbox, and if I need to track a specific conversation I can then use “show related messages” or sort by subject.

            But I hate threaded emails because I want the most current stuff at the top and easily visible.

          10. OP #2*

            I tend to use threaded emails for my personal Gmails (because is there a different way?), and it works fine. But when it comes to Outlook, I have to have separate emails. It’s a quirk I must’ve realized a while back but have basically accepted.

            1. Cassie the First*

              I’m pretty sure Gmail can do non-threaded emails – my boss didn’t like the threaded view so he uses the non-threaded version.

      2. Jules the 3rd*

        We had a Very Long Friday thread about email habits a month or two ago. The net I got:
        There is no One True Way, because we all have different tech, use it differently and have different preferences.

        My experience has been that it’s not worth my mental energy to get fussed about whether someone says TY or not, whether it’s in the subject or the email, etc. I will say I prefer minimal TYs, but if you gotta send them, subject’s better. But I get 200ish emails a day, of which I need to actually work on 50 – 80. The faster I can see that I don’t have to work on yours, the better.

    4. Murphy*

      Definitely this. A lot of people send me things that they need to give me (for their benefit) , so I always respond with “Received. Thanks!” Some people flat out ask me to confirm receipt, but I always do it as a matter of course.

    5. TootsNYC*

      yep–it’s a way to say “cross me off your mental to-do list”

      If you’re feeling weird about just saying “thanks,” then maybe specifically say that:

      Thanks–this is exactly what I need. You can cross me off your mental list.”

      or “this is perfect–thanks”

      “that’s the one I needed–thanks”

      ALSO: if there’s someone you communicate with often, you could ask them if they want that sort of email or not.

      1. always in email jail*

        This, this, 1,000 times this. I had this exact conversation this morning before reading this post. I prefer people to send a quick “will do!” or “thanks for the info!” or something so I feel like I can cross them off of my mental list.

    6. Bea*

      I used to flinch a bit at a “thanks” email but now that I’m dealing with people who often don’t respond to emails or cleverly forget to do thinks you email them about, etc. Yeah, I appreciate the confirmation and am over my initial distaste for them.

    7. CM*

      Yes, I agree that I’d like to minimize inbox clutter, but it’s useful to get that “thanks” so I know my work is done for now. The only times I don’t send “thanks” emails are when I’m pretty certain that person doesn’t need the confirmation — for example, they need to convey a message to a group of people, so they don’t need to know that I individually received it.

      1. always in email jail*

        This is a good distinction. For some reason I don’t send them if it’s a group email.

    8. WindyLindy*

      Yep! As someone who worked for a bunch of absentminded professors, I didn’t consider a task “done” until I got some acknowledgement that the professor got what I sent and didn’t need anything else. Sometimes the professors wouldn’t even read the thing for a month, and then they’d ask for some big revision… So a “thank you” e-mail was always welcome!

  6. ENFP in Texas*

    OP3 – A cost-of-living adjustment goes both ways. It doesn’t only apply when you move from a less expensive area to a more expensive area. If you move from a more expensive area to a less expensive one, not having a salary adjustment would basically be the same as “getting a raise”.

    For example, a gallon of gas in San Francisco is about $3.50, but it’s only about $2.50 in Dallas.

    1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      Yup. When I moved from the boonies to a high cost-of-living region to a less expensive city and then back to the boonies, my pay fluctuated as well. But so did my cost of living and quality of life.

      I think the most important factor is not lost salary or impact on future wages; it’s whether your salary provides the same relative cost-of-living benefit and is competitive for the local market. And that same analysis applies if you move back to a high cost-of-living area. It’s another testament to why salaries should not be based on your pay history, but rather, on the regional market.

    2. Smithy*

      Yes to all of this.

      I also know of a number of competitive employers in cities with a lower cost of living will really work to highlight that even though salaries are lower, they can purchase more with less. It’s always worth doing your research on the real estate market and cost of living calculators, but you can often end making “more” even if the offered salary is less.

    3. Environmental Compliance*

      I’ve had to explain this to a friend who lives in a much, much more expensive area than we do when we somehow ended up talking salary when I was looking for a new job and she was thinking of looking for a new job. I still don’t think she gets it, TBH. She’s limiting herself a ton by refusing to look at any jobs outside her expensive area that don’t have the dollar amount salary she’s currently getting or higher.

    4. Daughter of Ada and Grace*

      Absolutely this. My husband and I are both in tech (I’m software development, he’s QA). If we wanted to, we could move to the Bay Area, more than double our respective salaries, and would consider ourselves fortunate to rent a one bedroom apartment without roommates.

      Meanwhile, the lower salaries we make in the midwest are enough to live in a 3 bedroom house with a nice yard (or the same house with more acreage, if we were willing to take a longer commute), with plenty left over for savings, travel, and hobbies. (There are no kids in our equation, but education and childcare costs will naturally also vary by location.)

      1. Red Reader*

        Bingo. When I was house hunting in the Midwest, out of sheer curiosity, I put into Zillow my housing requirements, but for the Seattle area (where I lived until 2012). The cheapest most run-down fixer upper I could find that had the right number of bedrooms and bathrooms (and wasn’t so run-down I couldn’t live in while fixing it up) was still over $375,000.

        Then I took out all my requirements and just put in my price range. The first 50+ options were all 1 bedroom, 1 bath walk up condos that were at least 1.5 hour commutes to Seattle proper.

        In Indiana, that same price range got me a 4/3 2800 sqft house on a 1/3 acre fenced lot. :-P

        1. Dent*

          Living in North Dakota all my life, I still get sticker shock every time I catch an episode of House Hunters on HGTV. You need a 3/2 house in a quiet neighborhood and you’re expecting to spend 750K-1Mil?? Ai yai yai. I dream of moving to bigger areas on the east or west coast for the culture but when it comes down to it I’m okay with staying in the Midwest.

          1. Specialk9*

            I get the same when watching Chip & Joanna Gaines. Wait, you bought an actual HOUSE for $75k?! Not, like, a parking space?!

            In my town *starter* homes are $1M. Hence, renting.

            1. always in email jail*

              I’d be lying if I said I’d never looked at jobs in Waco after watching people buy a house on the water with a yard and completely renovate it for $200K on that show

    5. Bea*


      I moved from paying $600 a month on rent for a two bedroom townhouse to a studio for over $1000 a month. My salary now is much more but pays all my bills. Before my salary was much less and paid all my bills comfortably.

    6. Lil Fidget*

      In my experience, it mostly goes one-way – when I moved to a very expensive area, the company only agreed to match my current salary because “this was such a prestigious position and there were many qualified applicant,” etc. Now that I’ve been here ten years, clawing my way up salary-wise, when I look at jobs even out at the suburbs I’m told “of course you can’t expect to keep your big-city salary out here” … :P

      1. ENFP in Texas*

        My company (Fortune 100) actually has a COL adjustment table that they use when figuring salaries, and if you move to somewhere with a higher COL, they will usually adjust so you’re not taking a net salary loss.

    7. Free Meerkats*

      One more piece of anecdata. When I moved from the SF Peninsula to north of Seattle 30 years ago, I took a 30% cut in pay. But I went from being on the list for affordable housing to buying a house on a quarter-acre corner lot.

      The “never accept a lower salary” only applies if you’re moving jobs within or to a place with comparable cost of living. There’s no way a comparable professional job in Bismark is going to pay the same as one in San Jose.

    8. Big Bank*

      This is true of daily standard of living, but a trip to Bermuda is going to cost me a larger percentage of my income than someone from a higher cost city. So not all things equate. Plus mobility from high to low is easier than low to high. On the other hand, when you’re dealing with large corporations they often look to move out of high cost areas. Low cost areas often become attractive corporate bases, which mean potentially higher job security and more options. Trade offs to everything.

    9. PizzaSquared*

      I know this is a really old thread, but the universal “cost of living” argument always kind of bothers me, because I don’t think it’s as cut and dried as it may seem. The higher income you have, the less true it is. I have lived in both high cost of living and low cost of living areas. I have a relatively high income. Groceries and gasoline are a tiny percentage of my expenses, so they aren’t really a factor. It really only is housing and potentially taxes that make a difference. But if those equal the same percentage of your take home pay in a high vs low COL area with a correspondingly higher or lower salary, the remaining piece of the pie is much smaller if you pay is lower. From that remaining piece of the pie, I first like to save for retirement. If I’m getting paid less, I’m either saving less for retirement (bad), or saving the same but cutting the remaining money even MORE. And then from that remaining money, I’m want to be able to go on vacations, buy a car when I need it, buy computers and things for the house, clothing, etc. All of that stuff costs exactly the same (or maybe a very small percentage difference for sales taxes) regardless of where you are. A pair of Levi’s jeans isn’t marked down in Iowa, and neither is a Ford truck.

      So if I move to a low cost of living area and take a pay cut in proportion to the supposed cost of living difference, then arrange housing that costs the same percentage of my income as before, I will be saving less for retirement, taking fewer (or cheaper) vacations, and have substantially less money for large purchases like cars, computers, furnishings, etc.

      This isn’t hypothetical. I have lived both of these scenarios. The salary lower to reflect lower cost of living is not guaranteed to be an equitable trade, and I urge anyone who is considering making such a move to actually do the math before deciding.

  7. JamieS*

    OP #3: The don’t accept lower salary rule really means not to accept a lower relative compensation. So if you’re moving to a lower COL area your relative compensation could still increase even if your straight wage is lower.

    OP #4: If I’m reading correctly you’ve been unemployed for 2 years. Have you been job searching that entire time with no interviews or did you only start searching recently? If it’s been over 2 years without any calls definitely look over you resume/cover letter but might also need to examine the jobs you’re applying for. Unless it’s an incredibly competitive field even with a bad resume/cover letter, I’d expect someone who’s been reguarly applying for jobs for years to get least a few interviews just by virtue of the number of jobs applied for if they meet the minimum job requirements.

    1. Daisy*

      4/ I was wondering if I was reading the timeline wrong- 2 years seems like a long time to have been vaguely mulling over that call from the employment office? Yes, if he has in fact been out of work two years that’s likely to be both a problem in itself, and a sign that his materials aren’t working.

    2. J.*

      Re: “relative compensation,” that’s a really good way to put it. People often stay with my department because of the exceptional retirement contribution and health insurance benefits, even though they could probably make more in their semimonthly paychecks if they moved to somewhere in the private sector.

      I actually received a huge pay increase when I moved to my current position in a high cost of living city – $15,000 annually – and it still works out to being just a hair less functional cash because it’s so damn expensive to live here compared to where I was living before.

  8. Jay*

    O.P. #1:
    I am an old frequenter of Friendly Local Game Shops in several states. The big issue here would be, what are you having these volunteers DO, exactly? If they are manning the cash register, you have a problem. If they are hosting Game Night or running an AD&D Campaign or an open Magic The Gathering Tournament, then you should be fine, as long as you are not charging admission for the players or spectators. Even if it could be construed as grey area-illegal, I’ve never heard of anyone being hassled over it, at least if money is not changing hands (needless to say, betting would be a no-no). Basically in this case, it is YOU who are donating your valuable space to the COMMUNITY for their event. A lot of places hold these types of events after hours or on slow days as it gets bodies through the door and showcases the merchandise.
    Hope this helps.

    1. Gaming Enthusiast*

      If OP were to stop running the events herself, but transfer “ownership” of the events to a willing party and allow them to use her space for free, I don’t personally see how that would be a problem or fall afoul of the law. All my local gaming shops let people run non-affiliated games out of them. Because, hey, get a bunch of gaming enthusiasts together in a gaming shop and odds are good one of them will spot the Mythic rare MTG card behind the counter or the new D&D expansion or that cool Warhammer 40K figurine and decide to buy it while they’re there.

      1. cat owner*

        Mike C. – True, but companies donating space, supplies, or resources to community and non-profit events and getting advertising as a result of it is super common.

        1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          The key part is having someone unaffiliated with the store run their own event using that space. If there’s any nexus between the event and the store owner hosting/inviting folks, then there’s FLSA trouble.

          1. Jules the 3rd*

            To be really clear: My experience is that ‘event’ can be as little as ‘one game’.

            My FLGS has permanent tables set up, anyone can come in, take a game out of their ‘library’, set it up and start playing. Regulars do that W – Sat. The store does run some extra ‘events’ (like a 24hr marathon in partnership with a non-profit), which require extra work to ensure there’s someone running the actual games. Those game-runners would be donating their time to the partnering non-profit.

            But I think the line for in-store work is where money is handled, or where the proprietor is not on-site. The lawyer is best for helping OP1 see the line, but it’s not ‘Nobody else does anything ever’.

            1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

              Forgive me, for my exhortation but:

              No! The line is not whether money is handled or the proprietor is not on-site! The FLSA has very broad provisions that extend to nearly any activity that furthers a business purpose. That includes things like hosting business-sponsored events (as opposed to events organized by a third-party, where the business donates space). Anything that affects your business reputation, increases advertising/marketing/goodwill, or otherwise furthers your business-purpose is covered and must be compensated. And that applies even when no money is exchanged. A business could lose money hosting an event, and it would still have to pay wages to people working the event.

        2. Erin*

          Wouldn’t Be like the local car dealership sponsoring the 5k run walk that goes past their lot be the same thing?

      2. Wakeens Teapots LTD*

        Local businesses have community rooms & let orgs schedule meetings there. When my group meets occasionally at Wegmans, their location is advertised in my announcement, I drive foot traffic to them, I buy cookie trays and some people stop and buy their dinner on the way up.

        I’m not employed by Wegmans and nobody thinks that I am working for them.

        1. Mike C.*

          But you aren’t directly demoing their products to the public at large as part of an organized advertising program. Running Friday Night Magic is.

          1. Wakeens Teapots LTD*

            If my book club held an event at a local bookstore in a room they provided to us for free?

            There is significant community value in a local game shop & a place to play tournaments. I think the events can be run legally and ethically by outside groups that include volunteers and I urge the OP to discuss it with her lawyer.

      3. JerryLarryTerryGary*

        Monetize the space. The “owners”of the event handle set-up and clean-up of that area as part of the agreemen, so it’s like having a club use a space. Groups pay to rent rooms. So if the buy-in for Magic tournament is $10, that can cover an hourly wage for someone on the register.

    2. OP#1*

      Hi Jay, nice to hear from a fellow gamer!

      I have been given to understand from comments here and elsewhere that this may be a gray area, and that the chance of anyone being negatively impacted are minimal. But the bottom line for me is that I will not ask anyone to be involved in anything even mildly shady on my behalf, while donating free labor on top of that. Accepting help is gut-wrenching enough, but it being a legal gray area as well? I couldn’t justify that to myself, my investors, my community, or anyone really.

      That kind of settles the matter for me. Not perfectly legal/morally sound = will not do. I would do anything for my business. But I won’t do that.

      1. Maddie*

        It’s not legally gray. It’s legally black and white. You cannot take the advice that you can compensate them in ways that is not US dollars at the minimum wage per hour. I hope you find a solution. Ethically you have to follow the law. You could be hit with hundreds of thousands of dollars in penalties and legal fees if you do not. I’m so sorry you are going through this. Also if you break the law, your legal status as a resident could be affected.

        1. Tau*

          Is it really clearly illegal to allow community-hosted events to use your space without paying the community organisers? Genuine question – I mean, I 100% get that having a volunteer do store tasks such as manning the cash register is absolutely not on. And I can see how it still falls in that category if the store organises and advertises “Game Night Thursdays from 8pm!” but doesn’t pay the people hosting that. But if it’s something like “hey, let me know if you’re planning a gaming-related event and are looking for facilities, we’ve got space available 6-10pm weekday nights”?

          I guess the thing I’m confused about here is that not only have I experienced this sort of arrangement a lot, it seems to me like it’s part of a continuum where one end is meetup groups holding a meeting in a local cafe. Is that illegal for the cafe owners too? Where’s the line?

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            What you’re describing is legal as long as it’s happening the way you have it here. The part of the OP’s letter that wouldn’t be legal is her reference to shift work, which I assume means doing things employees of the shop would normally take care of (stocking shelves, serving customers, etc.).

          2. Sally Stitches*

            Yeah, that’s what I was thinking. A lot of game stores have open tables and events that aren’t necessarily “hosted” because it brings people into the store.

          3. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

            Tau, you’re discussing a different kind of arrangement than OP.

            As Maddie notes, this is not a gray area at all—it’s very black and white.

            But it is not necessarily illegal to allow community-hosted events organized by a party other than the hosting business. That distinction is crucial. If an outside group is doing the work, and they’re doing it without the encouragement or request of the business-owner, then allowing that group to host an event is effectively an in-kind donation. Even the advertisements would have to make clear that a third-party group is hosting the event, not the business. The same applies for meet-up groups using cafes.

            But if the event is in any way sponsored by the business (which includes an ad that would lead the average consumer to believe the event is sponsored by the business), or if OP asks the group to organize the event, then OP must pay the folks working the event.

          4. Turtle Candle*

            If it’s “the space is open for you to come play board games on Thursday nights!” or whatever, where you’re donating the space and people can show up to play D&D or Magic or Catalan or Pandemic, or paint figures, or whatever, my understanding is that it’s perfectly legal. (And, to my mind, ethical.)

            If you’re running a Magic tournament/game demo/painting class as a function of the store/official store event, then it’s not legal, even if the event is free.

          5. CM*

            It’s illegal but not in the sense that the police are going to raid your business. I think that’s what is confusing people. The risk here is that a volunteer complains to the state labor and employment authority, which can then assess fines and penalties against the business in addition to requiring back pay for all the other volunteers (who, according to the law, weren’t really “volunteers” but employees). That risk may be low in this situation since the community really wants to do this, but it sounds like this OP does not like the idea of violating the law regardless of whether there will be any consequences. As a fellow lawyer, I think Princess Consuela Banana Hammock is giving excellent advice on this thread.

            1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

              Thank you! I’m trying! :)

              Among my many weird and disparate sounding hats hats, part of my practice includes business law for social enterprises, community- and cooperatively-owned enterprises, and nonprofits. I’ve had to counsel many a store / yoga studio / acupuncturist “collective” on the volunteer / intern / employee distinction and how to pursue their efforts in a way that doesn’t violate state and federal labor laws.

              1. VelociraptorAttack*

                I also wanted to pop in and say I think you’re giving great advice here. I work at a university with interns so I’ve had a lot of fun conversations with for-profit businesses trying to figure out how they can have an intern and not pay them….

                1. whingedrinking*

                  They can absolutely have an unpaid intern. What they can’t (legally) have is an unpaid employee, which is what most of them really want.

              2. JSPA*

                Thanks for mentioning cooperatives. They do not necessarily have to be incorporated as cooperatives, depending on the state; There are a variety of multi-party partnership models and membership models that–again, depending on the state–can give people ownership at an adequate level to (basically) excuse them taking on some tasks (though working basic business shifts doing basic business tasks still tends to be dicey). But if it’s something that’s not intrinsic to the business, but rather, something of benefit to the general gaming community? Like after-hours gaming sessions, mini-conventions, competitions, art, etc? Make it something that’s done AT your store, not BY your store, and you’re very likely in the clear.

                Barter transactions are still fraught. As a wild over-simplification, all such things have to be declared so that the IRS can take their chunk of flesh for each transaction. (Not being able to trade lodgings or other building access for hours worked is actually a situation rooted in a progressive reform; back in the day, companies used to run “company towns” where lodgings were provided for workers, but workers had to buy at the “company store,” and commonly remained in debt for months, years, decades, or generations.)

                IMNAL! At one point I tried to set up the groundwork to form a limited equity housing cooperative meshed with a training program to fix up decrepit houses (and ran into all of these issues).

                1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

                  Although they can be extremely tricky, coops (marketing, producer, distribution, consumer, worker) are my favorite type of entity to work with :)

                  I think “sharing law,” in general, is super fascinating because it doesn’t quite fit into the traditional capitalist framework but is still trying to address power/wealth/ownership dichotomies. But it’s an area that innovates quickly makes you get into the weeds on big picture policy concerns, which I enjoy.

          6. Mike C.*

            I think what folks are missing here is that within the gaming industry it’s really, really common to have play events hosted on behalf of the store as a major way to advertise the product, such as Friday Night Magic. It’s not some random group coming into play, that wouldn’t be an issue.

      2. Blue*

        I wouldn’t dismiss this possibility without at least discussing it with your lawyer! There may be some perfectly legal middle ground here, and it’d be a shame to dismiss it preemptively. And I’m so sorry for your loss, OP. I’m glad your community is rallying around you.

        1. Natalie*

          Yeah, no offense to my fellow internet lawyers but this is a situation where you should describe, in detail, what people are doing to a business attorney in your state and take their advice. I really, really doubt that letting people use your space to host events is illegal, but I’m not anyone’s lawyer! Talk to them, not us.

          1. TootsNYC*

            emphasis on: business attorney

            (and remember that the law requires minimum wage, not “fair compensation”)

          2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

            There’s a way to host the events lawfully, but not under the current framework that OP has described. Of course, OP should consult with an employment law attorney in their state (not a general “business lawyer”).

      3. Meliza*

        Unfortunately, I think that’s the best way to go forward. I think it’s incredible that the community has rallied around you like this, but it sounds like legally it’s a minefield (for what it’s worth, I think that ethically you’re in the clear). You also don’t want to do anything that could impact your residency status.

        Also – I’m so sorry for your loss.

  9. Not A Manager*

    OP#1 – I don’t have an opinion on the legality of your setup. I do think that it’s VERY common in the FLGS community. Both of my spawn played Magic and other games when they were in high school and college, and almost every game shop allowed trusted older kids to assist at the store, ref games, and even makes sales in exchange for store credits. The kids loved it. They would have been there anyway, they loved the responsibility, and they loved the store credits. I think one of them actually got a job reference out of it.

    I disagree with Alison that it’s less ethical if they are young ‘uns than if they are adults. On the contrary, for young kids I think it’s like an unpaid internship and I’m all for it.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Just to be clear, the legality isn’t a question of opinion — it’s illegal. But the OP is asking about the ethics of it, and that’s where I think people can differ.

      1. OP#1*

        I am not always of the opinion that ethics and law perfectly overlap, but in this case, I absolutely agree. I had ethical concerns to begin with. Now that I’ve learned that I would be asking people to participate in something illegal on top of my previous concerns, that settles the matter entirely. (Although I am still very interested in what the commentariat will come up with!)

        1. Specialk9*

          It’s illegal the way you’re doing it. You can switch to another way – offering space to a group run by volunteers for volunteers – and I believe it negates the legal issues.

      2. Maddie*

        Not really. If it’s illegal it’s unethical and dangerous for it to continue. The court won’t see the argument that people can differ in opinion. Minimum wage laws are to protect society at large from exploitation and there is no it’s ok here but not there exception.

        1. Meliza*

          Just as a side note – there are actually several legal exceptions to minimum wage laws (which, IMO, create huge opportunities for exploitation, but that’s a bit of a tangent). I agree with your sentiment about the wage laws, but the OP is clearly not trying to exploit anyone – they jumped in to help her at a difficult time, which is what makes this ethically gray. Unfortunately, I think she does have to stop this practice now, since it is illegal. But ethically I don’t see anything wrong with what she did.

        2. Ask a Manager* Post author

          This is a bizarre comment to me. No one is arguing that the court will allow it because people differ in opinion. It’s illegal, full stop. But one can still discuss the ethics of a situation.

          1. Creag an Tuire*

            But surely we’d say it was unethical for, say, Jeff Bezos to accept volunteer labor in an effort to drive his competitors out of business?

            OP #1 is much more sympathetic than Jeff Bezos, but I’m not sure anything about her situation changes the ethics of it. You seem to be focused exclusively on the relationship between OP and her would-be-volunteers, but minimum wage laws are pretty explicitly designed to protect everyone in the labor market.

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              I think that’s a perfectly sensible position, but I also think reasonable people can argue that fully-informed, consenting adults should be allowed to choose to trade their labor for things other than money, particularly in a short-term situation where they want to help a small community business where the owner just suffered a tragedy. I do get the argument against that and the worry that it could have broader economic implications, but I think reasonable people can disagree on this one. (About the ethics of it, not whether it’s legal or not. It’s clearly not.)

            2. HarleyM*

              I think we would all agree that Bezos running a GoFundMe for medical expenses would be unethical, but many wouldn’t say the same about a poor family doing the same. Sometimes money does change the ethics of it.

              1. JSPA*

                Go Fund Me (or for that matter, bake sales or fundraisers)–for the OP, not for the business–is possibly one way to go on this. People are allowed to give time and/or money TO THE OP for non-business needs out of the goodness of their hearts. They just can’t donate to a for profit business. And there can’t be a quid-pro-quo that involves the business, financially-speaking. In the US, personal gifts are of no interest to the IRS until you pass $15,000 a year–and that’s from each person, to each person. If they love you enough to drop off groceries for you or buy your bus pass, and that means you have enough money to hire a couple of part-timers to run the register, and if you also open the place to a club one afternoon a week when you’re not working (but without doing sales, then, so it’s not a business thing, at least, not until you get there for the final half hour) that’s totally, totally OK. There ARE ways to make this work.

                1. Natalie*

                  For profit businesses can accept donations, provided they declare them as income on their taxes. The giver wouldn’t be able to write it off, but of course the same is true if they donate to the OP, personal gifts can’t be written off either.

            3. JamieS*

              Your Bezos example has two separate distinct ethical questions. The first is whether it’s ethical for a for-profit business to accept free labor if it’s offered of without coercion/manipulation. The second is whether it’s ethical for that business to engage in a campaign to build a monopoly by driving competitors out of business.

              It’s perfectly reasonable if someone thinks it’s ethical (which differs from legal) for Bezos to accept free labor but think it unethical to intentionally drive competitors out of business.

          2. YB*

            I work in employment law and frequently advise HR professionals on these matters. I appreciate Maddie’s perspective, but tend to agree that it’s bizarre to say that “If it’s illegal it’s unethical”. Plenty of unethical things are legal. (It’s amazing how badly an employer can treat employees without it being illegal.) Plenty of illegal things aren’t inherently unethical – is jaywalking unethical? In jurisdictions with anti-gay laws, is being gay unethical? There’s not a direct connection between law and ethics.

            From the OP’s description, I personally feel this sounds illegal but not unethical. (Note: that’s not legal advice, which I wouldn’t be able to give without knowing more specifics.) But the legal system can be very punitive in matters like these, especially toward non-citizens, and so it’s best to follow the law for self-preservation.

            (Also, OP, I’m so sorry for your loss, and so impressed by your commitment to ethical conduct. Best of luck!)

      3. Tamz*

        Alison – that seems like an unnecessarily strict interpretation of the law (albeit from my UK perspective).

        If the volunteers are doing work like manning the tills, that’s obviously not OK. If they’re hosting a community event in the space, that’s very normal and if the relationship is strictly defined, probably legal, no?

        And there’s a second legal grey area around payments – money given below minimum wage = not OK, but personal gifts and expenses covered = potentially OK?

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          If the OP is donating space and allowing people to host events there, that’s not illegal (as far as I know). It sounds, though, like she’s also having volunteers help with work that normally paid employees would handle (shift work).

      4. Anon Today Anon Tomorrow*

        Legality aside, for me, it’s the tenure of the help donated versus the age of the person doing the donating.

        The community temporarily stepping up to help OP#1, I see is as being completely ethical. OP#1 using that volunteer assistance as a long-term staffing solution to either keep the business running or to make a profit, I think is unethical. However, it sounds like OP#1 is very sensitive to the potential of the legality and wants to make sure that she is fully compliant legally.

    2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      To be clear, unpaid internships have to meet very specific factors to be able to be unpaid. What you and OP are describing doesn’t meet those criteria, and it effectively becomes unpaid child labor. That’s a significant legal, ethical, and liability problem.

      1. Thlayli*

        Also if you had children involved there would be huge issues with OP taking responsibility for minors and having to ensure all other volunteers are police vetted etc. Definitely don’t get any kids involved in running the events. (And also if kids are attending you need to make sure you’re protecting them adequately too).

    3. Bea*

      Being kids just makes it even more dangerous legally speaking. You need permits for anyone under 18 to work in an establishment. Unless they are the children of the owners.

      Which sucks because I agree with you for the most part, this kind of situation for a kid can be valuable as it was to your kids. However the government is set up to protect the vulnerable from being exploited. Kids being on the top of that list since thankfully you are a good parent, your local shop was ran by good people but man there are so many bad eggs out there ready to exploit a well meaning kid who just enjoys stocking shelves and talking about games with anyone who wants to listen.

  10. LHS*

    OP #1 – First, I’m so sorry for your loss.

    Now the bad news…
    This is not a viable solution for your business long-term. As Alison mentioned in her response, engaging volunteers in a for-profit business breaks labor law, and is ethically questionable. You are also running a big risk in terms of your liability – volunteers are typically not covered under workers’ comp, so if someone gets injured while “on the job” (let’s say they trip over some boxes and break a leg while retrieving product for a customer), they would likely be advised (or required, by their insurer) to sue you to recover their medical expenses. Or, I’m assuming that you frequently have children and young people in your establishment – imagine if a “volunteer” who had been casually brought in rather than going through a stringent hiring process were to sexually assault one of your young patrons. These may seem like ridiculous worst-case scenarios (but I am a volunteer coordinator at a hospital and it’s my job to think about and try to prevent worst-case scenarios like these from happening).

    I don’t think you run a grave risk by having a few friends *briefly* help out during a crisis. But my strong advice is to work on a plan to switch over to a paid coworker ASAP (or to evaluate whether the business is viable for you at present). Good luck.

      1. NoMoreFirstTimeCommenter*

        Absolutely. There is no such harmless job that you couldn’t get hurt doing it. It’s always best for the employee / volunteer / whatever to make sure that those things are in order. Unofficial arrangements between people with good intentions can get really problematic if something goes wrong. I’m not familiar with US laws but I think this is relevant everywhere in the world. Whatever the system is in your country, you need to be in a legal and generally accepted category and know who’s responsible for what. (Not only if something happens to the employee/volunteer/intern/etc but also if the employee/volunteer/intern/etc breaks something, even accidentally. Who pays for that?)

        1. Akcipitrokulo*

          In UK you need a DBS certificate (legal screening for any convictions or risk to children) before allowing anyone near kids, whether volunteer or paid. That includes people running magic tournaments.

    1. AcademiaNut*

      The other thing I would be really wary about – you say you’re a recent immigrant. If you’re not a citizen now, I would be very careful about being completely legal about running your business, as you’re vulnerable in a way that a citizen wouldn’t be. There’s a big difference between risking a fine and risking your immigration status.

      (This, by the way, is not a specifically American thing – I’m in the process of applying for permanent resident status in another country, and part of the process is a criminal check with the local police office).

      1. OP#1*

        I am indeed not a citizen, but I am a permanent resident with full legal right to work and travel in the US. I do share your concern though, things can get very complicated very fast. I am working with an immigration lawyer as well as a business lawyer to make sure everything is on the up and up. (As I’ve mentioned in comments elsewhere, the legality of it completely settles the matter for me. Illegal = will not even entertain the idea. That really is the end of it for me.)

        Thank you for pointing this out! It’s a thorny issue with many prickly branches. It’s frankly been hellish trying to sort all this out while reeling from such a horrific loss.

        1. Maddie*

          Good luck to you. I hope you succeed and am so sorry for your loss. Keep everything above board. Don’t entertain any advice that suggests otherwise.

        2. I Love Thrawn*

          I’m so sorry about your loss, truly. As far as the events – I know how much community events can mean for people, and it sounds like your participants are very emotionally and socially invested in this. Please at least hear out the business lawyer and see if you can legally allow the gatherings to be run in your space. From what I’m reading here, it sounds like it definitely can be legal under very strict guidelines.

        3. Gazebo Slayer*

          I am so sorry for your loss. And I’m glad you’re working with both an immigration lawyer and a business lawyer – in our current political climate, you may be at particular risk.

    2. Glomarization, Esq.*

      A very, very useful rule of thumb for answering the question, “Is this a good idea?” is to find out whether you can get insurance for it.

      Will your insurance carrier cover injury and property damage caused by the slip and fall that an unpaid (or “paid” by in-store credits) minor experienced while carrying a box to the counter in order to handle a customer’s sale? No? Then maybe this is an idea that should be thought through again.

  11. Terra C*

    OP #1: Might you consider offering a share in the business to a group of the trusted volunteers? Say there are 5 you really trust and want to volunteer for you. If they end up doing that for4 months, think of what it would cost for that time to pay them, and consider their labor as the investment. Give the group a 25% stake in the business. They would normally be paying you in cash for a share, but they’ll pay you in labor instead. An owner of a business isn’t beholden to any law about paying themselves, are they? (Any legal problems here, knowledgeable folks? I just thought this up in my head!)

    1. OP#1*

      It’s something I have been very seriously considering, trading hours for equity in some way with someone I work very closely with, who is a dear friend and would be an amazing business partner. So I will be following this thread very closely, and any advice there would be greatly appreciated!

      1. Tamz*

        Giving away equity is a very bad idea. Equity isn’t just value in your company, it’s also power and control. And 25% is a huge amount of power to give away, no matter how much you trust someone.

        And even just on value: think about how many hours of work you’ve put in to building value in your business. What is 25% of that time worth? At the very least it’s worth 3 months of full time work plus a quarter of the value of everything you own in the shop, all your stock, all the fittings.

        1. Cousin Itt*

          MTE – 25% is a massive slice of the business! Also, rather than giving equity away for hours wouldn’t it make more sense to have those who want to help become investors, pay you for their share of your business and then use that investment money to hire staff?

          1. Terra C*

            The 25% was random; just an example. That said, if she paid 5 people for 5 months at $3000 each, that’s $75,000. A big investment in a company that may be endangered otherwise. Sure, OP could ask them to contribute money to invest. Bus sweat-equity could offer a wonderful opportunity to folks who otherwise couldn’t afford the money.

            1. Beehoppy*

              $3,000 a month is almost $20 an hour if they were working full time. There’s no way a FLGS is paying that salary to ONE person, much less FIVE!

              It seemed like prior to her husband’s passing the store was functioning with two full time workers.

        2. logicbutton*

          It’s a serious thing to consider, but I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad idea at all. If OP doesn’t want to close the business, giving up equity to a trusted person (something in which there is no shame) might be the only ethical way for it to have a chance.

    2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      With the caveat that this is not legal advice, but rather, a cursory explanation of co-ownership options:

      OP would likely have to convert their entity type to an LLC, LLP, or worker cooperative. (It sounds like the business has been operating as a sole proprietorship or as an S Corp, but if not, that may make things easier). OP would then have to amend their corporate charter to allow other shareholders/owners, and/or they would have to draft an operating/partnership agreement prior to issuing shares.

      After the corporate formalities are cleaned up, any shareholders would become either co-owners or partners, which means they’re not employees for the purposes of wage-and-hour laws. At that point, their labor can be voluntary or compensated, but it doesn’t have to be compensated as wages (e.g., they could collect annual dividends).

      1. OP#1*

        Yes, I should have mentioned: we are indeed an LLC, and a framework is in place to allow new partners to step in at any time.

        1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          So this might be a viable option! If your “core” volunteers become partners/owners, then you’re not required to pay them in wages.

    3. So curious*

      I will be watching this thread eagerly to see if other commenters think this is a viable option. I have a friend going through a really rough time right now where she formed an LLC with a partner (75% and 25% partners) and they were both working to build a business with neither one taking a salary until the business started making a profit. That point hasn’t been reached, and the partner has suddenly asked to be released from the LLC and all liability for the business. My friend will most likely have to close the business without the support of another partner working for free, so she responded that she’ll try to get out of their lease but has no incentive to remove him from the LLC. The partner engaged a lawyer who is now claiming that the partner was her employee (because she was named manager of the LLC in the operating docs) and (all implied) seems to be threatening to report her for not paying workers comp etc. on behalf of her partner if she doesn’t release him. Can an owner of the business who was never paid even count as an employee? I’m amazed at how quickly this has become a huge mess.

      1. Jules the 3rd*

        That sounds like a question for real lawyers who have seen the operating docs, not online speculators.

      2. Jessie the First (or second)*

        Your friend needs a lawyer. A business lawyer (not a litigator, at this stage) to help her interpret her state’s laws, her incorporation documents and corporate by-laws, contracts, etc.

        This is the sort of thing you 100% do not want random internet advice on, and 100% the sort of thing she needs to hire a lawyer for.

        1. So curious*

          Thanks! Yes, it sounds like it’s time for lawyers. Hard when she’s already put basically all her money into the business, but agree it’s worth protecting herself from any more risk. Just so sad for her.

      3. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        Your friend should consult a business lawyer who specializes in LLCs. Unfortunately, this is too specific and too complex for folks to opine about in this forum, and rules regarding LLCs (especially with respect to minority partners) vary widely from state-to-state.

  12. Akcipitrokulo*

    OP2… seconding its often being an acknowledgement as well as manners. If it were important enough, and I didn’t get a reply, sometimes I might send a follow up “hey! Just checking you got *superImportantThingINeedYouToRead*”

    So it’s cutting out that scenario and providing a paper trail.

    Also polite ;)

  13. kate*

    The advice to OP1 is shockingly off-base.

    “do be aware that it’s technically illegal.” There’s no technically about it; it is illegal, period.

    “Leaving the legality aside and focusing just on ethics … I tend to think that as long as you’re not promising them eventual paid employment and they’re very clear on what they are and aren’t getting from volunteering, they’re consenting adults who can decide for themselves if they’re happy with the arrangement or not. (And this kind of thing does happen; it’s pretty common in yoga studios, for example.)”

    Ah, yes, the “it’s pretty common in yoga studios” defence. Airtight. More seriously, the wider implications of this way of thinking are pretty disturbing. Are minimum wage laws unnecessary, because consenting adults can decide for themselves what wage they’re happy to accept?

    I strongly believe that if you can’t afford to pay everyone fair compensation for their hours, you can’t afford to run a business. OP, best of luck getting everything sorted out.

    1. Thlayli*

      I actually think the advice is correct.

      I read the “technically” as being one of those words people stick in to soften a message that don’t actually change the content of the message. “It’s technically illegal” equals “it’s illegal but I’m trying to say it nicely rather than in an accusatory fashion because I know you don’t realise this”.

      As for addressing the ethics separately from the legal: why are you annoyed with that? That’s actually exactly what the OP asked Allison to do. Since Alison addressed the key issue about the legalities straight up, it seems to me that theres no reason not to give her opinion on the ethical aspects in response to OPs actual query.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Right. She asked about the ethics, not the law. I explained the law, then discussed the ethics, which are obviously subjective by definition.

        1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          I think this is an area where lawyers (and folks who work with wage-and-hour laws) are going to see this as truly black and white. I was taken aback by the advice, as well, and was very concerned that it tacitly condones OP’s approach as ethical. The law is often not concerned with ethics, and what is legal often is not ethical. But what is illegal is almost always also unethical.

          Speaking personally, I don’t think people can ethically differ in OP’s situation. OP is sympathetic, has been through a terrible experience, and has no ill will or malice or desire to exploit. But none of that matters, imo, because the conduct is inherently exploitative as it’s currently structured.

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            Hmmm, I definitely don’t agree that what’s illegal is almost always unethical — I think there are lots of examples where that’s not true, both broadly (for example … medical marijuana use?) and sometimes the way generally ethical laws end up applied to individual situations.

            1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

              After I wrote that, I realized that I don’t agree that what’s illegal is almost always unethical, either! I think I was thinking narrowly in terms of worker protections in labor law, but I should have been more thoughtful before typing that. There are a bunch of laws that I don’t believe are ethical, and it was silly of me to be so categorical.

          2. HarleyM*

            If you don’t think people can ethically differ, do you think Allison is unethical? I don’t, so it seems pretty clear that people can differ.

            The way I see it, this allows the business to continue to operate. OP1 gets to continue to survive rather than need to find a new job or go on public assistance shortly after her husband’s passing. The volunteers (who I assume are adults) get to help save their gaming center, probably gain some status in the community, and get whatever perks OP1 is providing. These things may very well be worth more, or even far more, to the volunteers than what she would pay them (if she could afford it). Personally, I would never take a job at a gaming center if one opened near me… but if volunteering a few hours a week is what it took, I’d absolutely do it. As described, this doesn’t strike me as remotely unethical.

            Even though it is clearly illegal.

            OP1, these volunteers want to help. Talk to your lawyer about how you can let them organize events in your space (which will bring in customers) without running afoul of labor law.

            1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

              I’m not sure why you’re setting up a straw man? There’s a difference between commenting on the ethics of specific conduct and attacking a person’s character.

              People can differ in how they approach the concern. My position is that it is not ethical for folks to volunteer for OP’s for-profit, even if OP and the current “volunteers” have benevolent and compassionate intentions.

              1. HarleyM*

                I have no qualms with your ethics on the matter. My issue is your statement that you don’t think people can differ on this point. If you don’t think anyone could reasonably consider this ethical, how are you not implying that those who disagree are unethical? Isn’t someone who accepts inarguably unethical behavior unethical themselves, by definition?

                1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

                  I don’t think that people who may assent to or pursue what I think is an unethical position are inherently unethical people. It would be really limiting (and kind of narcissistic/arrogant) for me to dismiss others in that way, or to think that my viewpoint is so pure, ethical, or superior that I can pass judgment on others simply because we disagree. I’d rather try to understand why someone has reached a different conclusion so I can interrogate and test my own thinking and conclusions (and change them if I think the other person’s reasoning is compelling).

                  I think behavior can be unethical, but there would have to be a much larger history and pattern of unethical conduct, of great weight and that creates harm, before I would impugn someone’s character and call them an unethical person.

                2. HarleyM*

                  You don’t think people can ethically differ but you think people can differ and still be ethical? I’m having trouble wrapping my head on how that is possible. To my mind, someone who firmly believes that unethical conduct is, in fact, ethical, is definitionally unethical.

                3. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

                  I think we just disagree on whether accepting unethical behavior makes a person unethical. :)

    2. Mookie*

      “it’s pretty common in yoga studios”

      I interpreted that as a back-handed compliment, given how many are run in the US, with the additional insinuation that what is common is not necessarily legal and certainly not advisable, ie: “do you want to be like the yoga people? Yeah, I thought not.”

    3. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Wow, that’s a lot of outrage about an answer I didn’t give.

      She asked about the ethics. I explained it’s illegal, then wrote “leaving the legality aside and focusing just on ethics” and talked about that part of it.

      It’s okay to talk about the ethics of something aside from what the law is, because people are allowed to think for themselves. It doesn’t mean they should violate the law, but they’re certainly allowed to contemplate what is and isn’t ethical, totally separate from what legal regulations say.

      And the answer opens with a statement that it’s illegal — not technically, just plain illegal.

      1. kate*

        “It’s okay to talk about the ethics of something aside from what the law is, because people are allowed to think for themselves.” Well, er… yes, and nowhere in my comment did I suggest otherwise. My “outrage”,* such as it is, is because I have thought for myself and I feel strongly about the ethics involved here. I think you’re wildly off-base in treating this as an “one the one hand… on the other” type of matter, you think there are reasonable people (some of them yoga teachers!) on both sides. We are both contemplating what is ethical and reaching different conclusions.

        * can it truly be Outrage on the Internet if it does not involve SHOUTY CAPS, though

        1. Washi*

          I read this answer more as a harm-reduction effort. Alison pretty clearly does not think the setup is a good idea (she says it is illegal many times) but if the OP is going to forge ahead anyway, Alison gives some good pointers on how to minimize the ethical damage. It’s pretty clear now that OP doesn’t want to do anything illegal, but that wasn’t initially obvious from the letter since she was asking more about the ethical implications than the legal ones.

        2. Marthooh*

          “The advice to OP1 is shockingly off-base.”
          “Ah, yes, the “it’s pretty common in yoga studios” defence. Airtight.”
          “Are minimum wage laws unnecessary, because consenting adults can decide for themselves what wage they’re happy to accept?”

          Heaping scorn on someone’s stated opinion sounds like outrage to me. (NB: I am technically outraged.)

        3. Meliza*

          You can have strong feelings about this without being rude to Alison, though, although I’m sure you’ll argue otherwise. People disagree with her all the time in the comments without resorting to condescension.

          This is a really difficult situation for the OP, and the OP is clearly trying to do the right thing by her volunteers. She’s actively trying to make sure she doesn’t exploit people. This sort of thing IS the way certain businesses in the U.S operate, and Alison’s two-pronged response (legality vs. ethics) is just her way of acknowledging that.

      2. Pollygrammer*

        “It’s okay to talk about the ethics of something aside from what the law is, because people are allowed to think for themselves.”

        Absolutely perfect response.

      3. Creag an Tuire*

        “It’s okay to talk about the ethics of something aside from what the law is, because people are allowed to think for themselves.”
        And thinking for myself, I consider this particular law ethical as a social protection, and therefore find it unethical to advocate for breaching it, even if we feel bad for the kindly widow who might lose her business.

        1. whingedrinking*

          Sure, but there is also a difference between saying, “Letting people get away with this undermines the law as a whole, so it’s wrong to do this” and “You are *exactly* like Amazon exploiting its warehouse workers”. It’s the difference between saying “Following the law is a moral obligation” (debatable but defensible) and “any act that breaks a law is inherently immoral” (which means Harriet Tubman, Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. would all be monsters

    4. McWhadden*

      She answered the question that was actually asked. Nor was it ever said that it’s OK because yoga studios do it.

  14. Maddie*

    Dear OP, I am so very sorry about your husband. What a terrible blow. There is no such thing as “technically” illegal. It’s illegal and can get you into much more trouble and cost you hundreds of times the money you are saving with these volunteers. If the federal or state government finds out you will be in a world of hurt so just stop. It’s not really an ethics question because the illegal aspect and the potential consequences overshadows everything else. Best of luck.

    1. Calpurrnia*

      “it’s not really an ethics question because it’s illegal” is kind of a weird stance to take. Lots of topics out there on one side or the other of the law are still perfectly valid ethics questions for reasonable people to discuss and debate. That’s how laws get changed, when people’s ethics and their laws don’t match up. Further, what is legal in the US vs (say) China are quite disparate, but what you or I personally believe to be ethical does not change by crossing national borders (unless you genuinely think, say, freedom of expression is “unethical” in China but ethical here? Which is a really unusual way to define ethics, which is a more universal concept.)

      Rational people can discuss the ethics of hypotheticals even when those situations are completely illegal. Think about all those topics that should be off-limits at Thanksgiving dinner: gun control, abortion, sex work/prostitution, prayer in schools, police brutality, doctor-assisted suicide. There has to be at least one topic where the law draws the line differently from your personal sense of morality.

      Just look at all the archive posts where people write in feeling indignant about mistreatment and asking if it’s legal. Frequently Alison says “yes, it’s legal” but then gives information and advice to rectify the situation or solve the problem, regardless of what the law says. Because the law does not divide right from wrong in every case.

      1. Joielle*


        I am an actual lawyer. Practicing law is not a matter of simply memorizing and reciting what the law is. Legal gray areas are filled with arguments about ethics – harm reduction, good faith, and so forth. Even ignoring what a silly point Maddie is making about ethics in the abstract, even in a strictly legal sense it’s wrong!

      2. Girl friday*

        I think half of the people are saying, “Now that we settled the legal question, we can have a rousing ethical debate;” and half the people are saying, “let’s not confuse the Op with further discussion; this is illegal, period.” So it’s just two different conversations. Ethical Behavior means that the maxim of your act could be made a universal law. For that to be true, bartering would have to be done under a completely different organization name or something and only the space be shared, right? Because fair pay is a human rights concern, so none of that would be ethical at all as written.

    2. Jessie the First (or second)*

      Maddie, many, many laws take intent into account and that is true even with labor laws – sometimes, for example, violating a labor law means you pay back wages; sometimes, it means you pay back wages *plus* double or triple damages. That’s because context and intent – i.e., the general ethics of the situation – matters.

      Also, as multiple commenters have pointed out above, there are ways that some of what the OP is doing could be legal (community hosted events run by community members) and so there is a way to allow local gamers in her community to be involved. She should talk to a lawyer in person and work out the boundaries of that.

      I’m a lawyer. I think it is realistic to acknowledge that ethics and the law do not always perfectly overlap – the law is written for the general good, and does not and cannot anticipate every specific situation, and so sometimes, there will be times when something is illegal but not unethical, and I do not see the problem with acknowledging that divide. And people are comfortable with different levels of risk.

  15. Maddie*

    Also the Judge won’t give a rat’s a ss what does it does not go on in yoga studios if you are turned in or caught. It’s tax fraud, minimum wage fraud, and probably a whole list of other breaches that will cost tens of thousands of dollars to defend, plus the cost of fines, back payments, tax consequences, social security consequences, etc. Stop it now and prayer it all falls under the radar. The law doesn’t care about one’s feelings on ethics.

    1. Sally Stitches*

      The law doesn’t care about one’s feelings on ethics.

      Wow, that sounds almost exactly like what Alison said:

      Different people will come down on different sides of this (but the law does not).

    2. Yorick*

      It’s really bizarre that you’re posting so many comments that basically say the same thing, when pretty much everyone has agreed that it’s illegal to have people do shift work and OP shouldn’t do it.

  16. Lady Ariel Ponyweather*

    #OP1 – Just want to say that I’m so sorry for your loss. Hope you’ve got people helping you on the personal as well as business side of things.

    I don’t have business advice, but was wondering if you/your friends have reached out to other gaming groups outside your local area? My first thought was the Critical Role fandom. Maybe if you get word-of-mouth going online, people can buy things from your store and help you out that way.

    What you’re doing is really beautiful and the kind of space you offer is vital for many. I hope you’ll be successful in keeping it open. Wishing you all the luck!

        1. Perse's Mom*

          I’m kind of sad that campaign two doesn’t have any Grog-isms (not that I can think of, anyway).

  17. Jemima Bond*

    Maddie and Kate – firstly I agree that a potential/inevitable legal nightmare (around laws that exist for very good reasons!) outweighs any ethical debate. I don’t know if you have had time to read the whole thread though but the OP has commented a couple of times making it pretty clear that she doesn’t want to go near anything with a whiff of legal doubt (and I’m right with her!) so I reckon you can be reassured!
    OP#1 I can totally get that in the initial shocking days people helped out by covering a shift or two for you in the same way as friends might cook you dinners to put in the freezer or take your kids out for the day. But as discussed it can’t really go on like this and it seems like you are on board with that. I hope you can make it work out anyway!

    1. Maddie*

      I wish OP the best of luck in a hard circumstance. I’m just very surprised at the advice that was given which could hurt OP very badly. It’s never right or ethical to advise someone they can skirt minimum wage laws that were so hard fought to get, or to suggest that compensation can be something other than the money that is legally required. This answer would not fly in a Forbes column.

      1. Blue*

        I don’t think the advice was to skirt the law. I read it more as, “It’s illegal, but if you decide to do it anyway, here’s some things to keep in mind.” Because the reality is, some people would (and do) decide to do this kind of thing regardless of its legality. See, for example, many yoga studios…

      2. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Forbes is a weird standard to use.

        But please chill out with the outrage. “You may decide that you’re willing to take that risk and do it anyway but be aware it’s illegal” is hardly “go break the law.”

      3. Bea*

        Forbes has some garbage contributors, I don’t even know why you’re bringing it up unless you’re on their payroll. It’s the internet, it’s full of advice from strangers that has to be filtered through your own brain not taken at face value.

      4. General Ginger*

        The first sentence of Alison’s response ends with “it’s illegal”. She did not advise anyone to skirt minimum wage laws.

  18. Delta Delta*

    #1 – What do these events look like? Are they structured? Or is it more like a sign in the window and a Facebook post that says “come on and play XYZ Game from 4-6” and there’s a table and some chairs and people drop in to play? Do they need actual staffing or is it more of a place where people hang out and do their thing in part of the store while the store is also open? I don’t know if any of this makes a difference, necessarily. I just don’t have a basis of knowledge in gaming so I’m not sure if we’re all thinking in terms of work but it’s actually not.

    If it is work, I join the chorus of readers saying not to do this or to hire an employee to run/staff the events.

    1. Wants more wrangling*

      From running games (and often scrambling to find a venue…!) it’s, for what I was doing, very much a “thank you so much for letting me use a corner of your shop!” not “I’m running an event to benefit your business.”

      Obviously people would buy stuff when they were there (particularly if they sold drinks and snacks as well), but it was giving me a place, not my providing a service.

      (This is specific to how we did it, but think it’s pretty standard…)

      1. Ainomiaka*

        Yeah-This is how I did it too. I’m a little bit weirded out by the people saying that is like working for the game shop. Definitely not-they were probably net negatively affected, since fewer people could park and come in. And while we tried not to leave a mess, I am sure there was still some cleaning up after.

      2. Elsajeni*

        There are events like that, which are probably fine, but there are also events like the Board Games & Beer night that a store near me used to have, that was fully organized by the store and should definitely be run by an employee, and events like Friday Night Magic or D&D Adventurers League, where the store is more involved in organizing and advertising the event but might be less involved in actively running it. The OP’s commented a few times that she has a lawyer she’s working with, so given the range of possibilities that “running events at the store” could include, it’s probably best she talks about the details with her lawyer and works out which events are okay as-is and which events someone really needs to be paid for.

  19. Tau*

    OP1 – I’m so sorry for your loss.

    My main piece of advice is: keep consulting that business lawyer, and if what they tell you contradicts what people are saying in comments, believe the lawyer. Most of us are not lawyers, none of us have the specifics of your situation, the lawyer will be able to give you far more accurate information about the legality of what you’ve been doing and possible ways to have people involved without breaking the law.

  20. Glomarization, Esq.*

    > Is it ethical to have people volunteer for work like this without offering pay?

    It is not. Period, end of.

    I’m very, very sorry for the loss of your husband. Keeping a business running after the loss of a principal — never mind whether it’s your spouse — can be nigh impossible. But small businesses are risky, and they fail left and right, and one of the biggest risks is a sudden, unexpected, personal loss that causes a catastrophic, uninsured business loss.

    Also, you don’t state what your current status is, but unless/until you’re a naturalized citizen, it’s important (as I’m sure you know) that you minimize your contacts with the criminal justice system. Problems with fraud, especially, can jeopardize your status and your smooth pathway to American citizenship.

    I’ve seen a suggestion to form a non-profit organization so that you can have volunteers take on some work. That’s fine, but keep in mind that a non-profit organization is still a business. There is management and paperwork involved, and in the end the founder isn’t even their own boss, because they’re answerable to a board of directors.

    I’m glad you’re talking with a lawyer to sort this situation out, and again, I’m sorry for your loss. I’ve been a business owner, too. Losing half the ownership has happened twice to me, and both times the businesses nearly folded over the event. In the end, it was the “side hustle,” not the nearly folded businesses, that kept food on the table, anyway.

  21. CatCat*

    “I left my first post-college job about two years ago…”

    What have you been doing for the past 2 years? Do your application materials address this gap? That’s the biggest fact that stood out to me and could be hurting you in your job search if your materials are silent concerning this span of time.

  22. RG*

    Uh, not to usurp Alison, but OP #4 there’s a resume template I use that’s specifically geared towards software development. You can find it at I use it, and I saw a marked increase in the number of positive responses from companies after I switched to it. I’ve passed it around to others in our industry and they say the same thing. I promise, I wouldn’t mention it if it didn’t work for me – give it a look when you get a chance.

  23. There is a Life Outside the Library*

    Re: reference checking ahead of time…it happened to me once this year and to my husband three times. I don’t know why people are doing it, but they are. It seems like a massive waste of time.

    1. Legalchef*

      We’ve been hiring a bunch and I’ve done it a couple times, but only when there is something in the resume that doesn’t make sense and the reference is someone in my network who I would trust to shed light on whatever the issue is.

      1. There is a Life Outside the Library*

        When it happened to me, I was told that they already felt they wanted to hire me and wanted to get it out of the way to speed things up. For my husband, it’s become an automated check in his industry. Two of the times he had not even finished the online application yet.

        1. College Career Counselor*

          I’ve had the reference check happen a couple of times before the campus visit. The reference check did come after the initial phone/skype screen, however, so the search committee wasn’t doing it with literally every applicant (just the ones they thought they wanted to bring to campus).

  24. Sally Stitches*

    #3 Ugh. I have a friend working in the San Francisco area (i.e. a very high cost of living area) who is interested in possibly moving to our much lower cost of living area. Apparently he’s convinced that he should be paid the same amount of money when he moves, despite the huge difference in COL. I think he’s going to be disappointed… I’m with Alison. It should be comparable, but numerically it’s not likely to stay the same.

    1. Erin*

      In NYC they pay people at mcdonalds $15-20/ hour. If you put that as your pay goals on your app for mcdonalds in the Midwest it would go directly in the trash. Hell I’d have a McJob if they offered full time and benefits +$20/hour around here. In NYC they have to offer that because nobody could afford to live in NYC or would bother with the crazy commute otherwise. The

    2. Bea*

      This is why so many Californians end up retiring to Oregon, the money goes so much further.

      I feel bad for people stuck in that cycle of thinking “I was paid 3x that in San Francisco, why won’t they pay me that in Kentucky!?” I have to try to turn off my accountant brain to wrap my mind around the thinking. I have to remind myself most people just see numbers as ‘high or low’ and not cost of living, supply and demand, etc. Sigh.I feel bad for your friend especially since I know the astronomical costs of San Fran.

      San Francisco restaurants are also now trying to outlaw (tech) companies from supplying lunches for their workers as a benefit so many offer because they say nobody goes out to lunch anymore. Or maybe they just don’t want to spend $25 on a meal but yeah…delusion.

      1. Sally Stitches*

        Also maybe they have no time go out to lunch because there’s no work/life balance, but that’s a whole different issue!

        Yeah, he tells me what he pays for some things out there and it’s ridiculous.

    3. lawyer*

      Yeah, I interviewed a first-year associate once who thought we should pay her more because her other job offer was in SF (we’re in a MCOL SEUS city). In large law firms, all first-year associates in a given office make the same salary and it’s absolutely non-negotiable. But even if it is, a SF salary would be completely non-market for our city.

    4. AMPG*

      As someone who relocated from a high COL area to a lower one (although it’s still considered expensive by national standards), I found that it worked in my favor from a salary standpoint. Basically what I did was disclose my previous salary and then explain that I understood market rates for the field were lower in the area, and then sit back and wait for them to come up with a number. Both times I got offers the employer went slightly above the high end of their range without my even having to name a dollar amount. So I do think it can help.

  25. Sophie G.*

    For OP#1 – I know that some other commenters are saying that even if it is illegal, it’s not something that one is likely to be hassled about, but the OP is a recent immigrant. Realistically in today’s environment with the Administration threatening to revoke the citizenship of naturalized citizens, the OP cannot afford to step a toe out of line and should likely take the most conservative approach to anything.

    1. ChaufferMeChaufferYou*

      Yes, I worry for OP for this reason. A citizen would likely get by with this as long as it wasn’t too many hours or goes on for too long, but I could imagine this is something that could have big consequences for OP.

      1. Erin*

        It depends on what they’re doing. If it’s “I’m sick today. can you do me a small favor of posting a sign on the door and collecting the mail please?” Or “I’m out on vacation for 2 weeks will run my shop for free while I’m away?”

    2. Lemon liz*

      OP has a green card though. This is almost as good as citizenship, well, it could be taken away if she goes to prison. If she wants to become a citizen she needs to maintain good moral character for 5 years, I’m not sure if breaking labor laws counts against that though. I’m a green card holder myself. Being a permanent resident is nothing like being on a visa or being illegal. Only an immigration judge can take away your status even if it’s conditional (everyone getting their green card through marriage gets a conditional status if they’re married for less than 2 years by the time the card is approved).

  26. LadyByTheLake*

    #3 Be aware that the COL adjustment might not exactly match the COL difference. I worked for a large company and when I moved to SF I only got a 15% pay increase even though the COL was 50% higher. The important thing to know is what the range is where you are going.
    #4 It sounds like the employer thought they were doing you a favor. If you quit you can’t get unemployment benefits, if you were fired (so long as it wasn’t for certain Very Bad Reasons) you can.

  27. Linzava*


    At my current job, I ran into the exact situation you are talking about. I decided to reciprocate for people who sent thanks emails. My boss, hates clutter, I only email him responses with information. A coworker who always responds with thanks also gets a thanks. A vendor I’m chummy with gets a “Thank you so much!” Mirroring is useful in situations other that face to face.

  28. Ainomiaka*

    Okay, for OP #1, how does being paid in tickets to events ( which she says she does) factor into this? Is that a recent change? I have definitely volunteered for events that are national in scope and profitable enough to have a lawyer (and to be targeted if it was illegal I would think) in the past. Now they had a definite discount/number of hours set up, does that satisfy the law?

    1. Natalie*

      Something can be profitable while still organized as a not-for-profit entity. It just means any profit they make has to be rolled back into the org rather than distributed to shareholders or owners.

      A lot of theaters, for example, give people free tickets for being ushers. That’s allowable because the theater is organized as an nfp, even if it’s a big successful regional theater.

      1. Ainomiaka*

        True, but I didn’t think either SXSW or Gencon was-google seems to confirm. Now, a possibly important difference there is that tickets are expensive enough that a free or reduced ticket could work out to minimum wage for several hours, which might be hard for a small local store to claim.

        1. Natalie*

          Honestly it sounds like SXSW just hasn’t gotten busted. I’ve come across a fair amount of complaining about how much money they make on the backs of largely volunteers.

          Sometimes big companies decide to take a chance. I believe FLSA enforcement is largely complaint driven, so as long as no one’s filing complaints they’re pretty safe.

        2. LJay*

          As of the last couple years, GenCon does pay their volunteers $10 an hour. These would be the people working will-call, selling tickets, at the HQ stations, etc. (They also get their badge reimbursed after the fact if they work enough hours, and some additional stuff at higher levels.) Looking at the website now they don’t actually call them volunteers anymore, either, but “Event Team Members” and they refer to an “employment process” rather than volunteer signups.

          The Gamemasters who host games seem to be in the situation talked about above – they are using donated space at the con to run their own games for their own benefit/the benefit of people who want to play it, rather than being GenCon employees doing work for the enterprise for a profit. (Though as I am definitely not a lawyer I don’t know how things like the online directory of games/ticket collection system complicate that).

          If the Gamemasters work for a game company, the game company itself should be paying them wages. Same with a retailer running a booth.

          Emerald City Comic Con did have a class action lawsuit against it for not paying their volunteers and there was a lawsuit by some Magic judges as well. I think those are some of the things that sparked the claim.

          1. Lavender Menace*

            Yeah, a lot of cons are now for-profit companies and don’t have con volunteers anymore. I used to “volunteer” for cons a lot (NYCC, particularly) and we weren’t actually volunteers but paid short-term minimum-wage employees. ECCC is now run by Reed Pop – who also runs NYCC, PAX, and many other comic-cons – and they pay their “volunteers” now too. They call them ECCC Minions. The only con I’ve volunteered at recently that still does not pay their volunteers is GeekGirlCon, a medium-sized con in Seattle, and that’s because GeekGirlCon is organized as a not-for-profit.

        3. Dragoning*

          Gen Con is organized as an LCC—but yeah, those tickets are expensive, and they also have reserved rooms for volunteers.

    2. Green bean*

      I was thinking the same about marathons and triathlons – even the massage therapists and medical stuff there are volunteers – how does this work?

  29. Jules the 3rd*

    OP1: As to the ethics:

    Some stuff around gaming isn’t ‘work’ to people involved. Running a game means *I get to play the game* means *this is not work to me*. It is so hard to put together gaming groups! Who want to play the same game! Maybe a better way to put it is ‘it’s work that I compensated for by the fun of playing the game instead of by money’. (ps, yes, I also straighten displays under this same mode, gotta put that OCD to some kind of use…)

    Having to sit at the register while my friends were playing, or having to stop my play to handle a transaction at the register, or questions – that would be work.

    1. Lavender Menace*

      I work in the video games industry and…no. I’m not trying to knock on you Jules, but this kind of reasoning contributes to underpay and bad working conditions in the games industry. Games are fun but the business of games is about more than just enjoying the game; running a gaming event (running it well, anyway) is a lot more work than just playing the game. It’s fine if someone wants to do that for a not-for-profit or in their own time just for fun, but doing it for a for-profit business is still work. I think many people (not all, but many) who initially think this way come to rethink it once they’re on the hook to organize and run several gaming events over the course of time.

  30. boop the first*

    1. I’m surprised to hear that this is downright illegal. I mean, that’s great, but I’m confused. What about all the teenagers who are forced by their schools to get work experience (by any means necessary) in order to graduate? I could have sworn there were the odd occasional volunteer here and there at various jobs I’ve had.

    (I myself ended up at an animal shelter working alongside Community Service people who kept asking me “what was I in for?” haha. Which illustrates how I felt about forced volunteerism by high schools, I guess.)

    1. Washi*

      Are you in the UK? I’ve heard of the “work experience” thing on British TV shows, but I’ve never heard of it in the US. I once did a job shadow for one day at a business through my school, but I don’t think it would be legal in the US to have high schoolers doing actual work for long periods of time for a for-profit without pay.

      1. That Would be a Good Band Name*

        I don’t have enough details on this yet because it literally just changed, but my 8th grader will be required to have “learn and demonstrate employability” to graduate high school in our state. I’m going to guess that volunteer work is going to be a big part of that.

        1. Erin*

          Maybe it’s just as simple as holding down a summer job and a letter of recommendation from their manager.

        2. College Career Counselor*

          There’s the “educational benefit” for the student (graduation requirement). Also, there are a lot of nonprofit orgs out there where being a volunteer/unpaid intern is perfectly legal.

      2. londonedit*

        The UK system doesn’t work on the idea of ‘graduation’ from high school, so I don’t think this is a UK example. In England and Wales, at least (Scotland is slightly different) you take a set of exams (GCSE) in a broad range of subjects at the age of 16, and your results from these determine whether you can go on to do two more years’ study at school, to take a different set of exams (A level) at the age of 18, or whether you’ll do some other sort of educational course, or go into training or into the workplace. If you do take the age-18 exams, your results from those then determine whether you can then go on to study for a degree at university, or again, into some other sort of training or into work. So it doesn’t work on a ‘fulfil these requirements and you can graduate’ basis, it’s a ‘you’ve taken the exams so you’ve left school, and we’ll find out in August what grades you got’.

        Anyway, work experience is a thing that happens in UK schools, but it’s not a requirement that you have to fulfil in order to leave school.

      3. Baby Fishmouth*

        This is a thing in Ontario, Canada. All high school students have to do 40 hrs of community service in order to graduate. However, it’s more about community service than employability, although my volunteer managers were my references for my first couple of jobs. It was surprisingly easy to get hours (40 hrs over 4 years, = 1-2 full days a year), and I never saw it as a huge burden.

      4. Creag an Tuire*

        I don’t think it was required for a basic HS Diploma, but I had “community service” requirements as part of an honors program I was in — I think the point was that only non-profits could accept my unpaid labor. (I volunteered at my library.)

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Animal shelters are generally nonprofit or government run, so they’re allowed to have volunteers. But if teenagers are working for for-profit businesses, they have to be paid (unless it’s structured as an internship, but there are strict standards that has to meet and most teenage-type jobs won’t).

    3. Falling Diphthong*

      I don’t like the forced volunteerism to graduate, but it’s not done at for profit events or businesses. (And it’s hard to get into our animal shelter as a teenaged volunteer.) When I ran the school science fair I had mostly adult volunteers, some high school students, and the only difference was that the kids all had me sign a form about their hours. Except my own kid, who got her form signed by another PTO member.

      1. Falling Diphthong*

        Also, for my kids’ school:
        • It’s not about employability, but community involvement.
        • Typical events are various school things (give directions at open house, set up and man a table and tear down at kindergarten chick festival) and community things (pull invasive species from the conservation land).

      2. That Would be a Good Band Name*

        I wish ours was more like this and less employability. I’m hopeful that maybe some of the forced volunteering that happens due to marching band participation (the kids help run a food and ticket booth at a few events during the year) will count for some or all of the requirements.

      3. Erin*

        Me either, I faked a reference for volunteering with a random name out of the phone book. I was working 15-20 weeks on top of high school. Not that I’m proud of it.
        But, nobody from my high school checked on it. I felt bad for the people who actually volunteered hours of their time just to graduate. But a lot of people combined their volunteer hours for graduation with court ordered community service for getting a minor in possession of alcohol ticket. I figured me not getting arrested is community service enough.

    4. Bea*

      I’m blissfully unaware this is a “thing” that some areas require. We don’t do that here, that sounds like it is an entire course that requires work hours to be involved. We have barely enough teachers for the basics, throwing in some community outreach would be outrageous.

      Especially with strict labor laws regarding those under 18.

    5. Priorities*

      If it was a non-profit (as many animal shelters are) then they are allowed to accept volunteers

    6. Admin of Sys*

      All the ‘volunteer’ requirements for high-schooler’s around here are for non-profits or gov’t based programs. Some of them appear like businesses – a reuse center, a theater, etc – but they’re all non-profit and community based.
      There are also vocational support systems, but they’re classically internships – they’re teaching the kids how to do carpentry or car repair or whatever. I

    7. Amber Rose*

      I think it’s different if it’s structured through the school as well. I worked at a pizza place as part of work experience when I was 13-ish, but I was not employed by the pizza place in any way, and all the insurance and stuff was done through the school. So if I was injured for example, worker’s comp would not apply. But I’m betting the businesses and the school had some kind of complicated contracts in place.

      I don’t know if it’s a common thing for schools to do what ours was doing though.

    8. LJay*

      Those would be allowed as unpaid interns presuming the work was for an educational purpose and the company was deriving no actual benefit from having them work there. (If the company has to pay a real cashier to ring up the transactions, or pay the real cashier to stand and hover over the 8th grader while the 8th grader rings up transactions and not do anything else, then the company isn’t deriving any benefit).

      If the company took a bunch of 8th graders, trained them to be cashiers, and then fired their current cashiers or reassigned the current cashiers to other roles or tasks benefiting the company while the 8th grader was volunteering, that would not be okay because the company would be deriving benefit.

  31. Narise*

    OP 1 If you are in CA or NY be very careful. Those two states DOL regulations are very complex and carry hefty fines as well. I’m not saying you can do this in other states but wanted to let you know those two states are much harder on employers than other states and even the Federal DOL.

  32. That Would be a Good Band Name*

    #3 – I’d actually recommend calling a few places (local realtors, utility companies, etc) and get a real feel for the true costs of living in the area. We relocated back to our home state a few years ago and at first lived in a larger city. We could barely make ends meet while living in a two bedroom apartment. We moved again within the same state and the same salary allowed us to buy a fairly spacious 3 bd house. A cost of living calculator tells me there is essentially no difference between the two locations, but clearly there is.

    1. Admin of Sys*

      Oh, good point – the gap in residence costs between the city proper and the 20 mi away suburban areas (that are still in city limits) is vast where I am.

    2. Iris Eyes*

      COL calculators are usually regional but different neighborhoods or cities can leave you with wildly different experiences. Things like distance (and available methods/costs to travel) to reasonably priced groceries, work, and healthcare can negatively or positively impact COL. Car insurance can cost significantly more if you live in a wealthy suburban area, but might actually be higher in a rural area because of animal related accidents (true life story.) Same with crime rates and home/rental insurance. Phone and internet service can also impact how affordable an area is for the life you need it to support. Just because you can buy a bigger house doesn’t mean it is more/less affordable to live there. You have to take into account the patterns of your life (are you going to be traveling every weekend into downtown and the possibly Ubering back to the burbs?) and especially the reoccurring expenses and to some extent the societal pressures of what your peers are going to expect you to spend money on. Now you do control a lot of those but real estate and basic necessities (milk, bread, gas) prices are just a part of the equation.

      1. That Would be a Good Band Name*

        I used housing as an example because it was an easy example, but we definitely found that some things were cheaper in the first area we lived (internet and water is higher here, for example). But groceries are cheaper and the biggest difference for us at first was actually child care. Our costs dropped to 1/3 of what they were in the first area. That alone covered our house payment. And it’s definitely wise to take into consideration having to travel for work. My husband was offered a job in the smaller town we moved to and for the first 8 years neither of us had a commute longer than 5 minutes. My company closed and now I commute 45 minutes one-way daily. That wouldn’t have been an option when the kids were little due to cost and just logistics of child care/school.

        Basically, I’m agreeing with you – the housing doesn’t tell the whole story. But if you are trying to decide if you can stomach a pay cut, it may help to consider buying power of the dollars rather than just how many dollars there are.

  33. Just Another Analyst*

    OP2 – Tangent incoming: We use a ticketing system to track our data requests. The system is used to help gauge performance, assess workloads among the team, and determine which requests are frequent enough that we can invest time in automating them. Because of this, it’s important to keep the system as clean as possible, which means we can’t close a ticked until we receive confirmation that the client has all of the information they need. If we don’t hear back from them and close the ticket assuming that the request is complete, but it turns out that further work was needed, then we have to start a new ticket for the same request.

    All of that is to say that I definitely appreciate a quick “thanks!” email to confirm that a request is complete. Even if I wasn’t beholden to tickets, I think I would feel a lot better knowing that I can mentally move on from a task.

  34. Never*

    #3 has median income and rent information that I find helpful, listed by individual town/city, not metro area.

  35. ChaufferMeChaufferYou*

    OP #1: I’m so sorry for your loss.

    I have no advice, I just wanted to offer encouragement. I worked for years for a very small for-profit business for many years. I loved that job, but was ultimately let go because the business was floundering due to the 08/09 recession. That business is still barely holding on today, and I still volunteer hours here and there to help the owner get by.

    Owning a small business is so difficult. I often joke that it’s like another child. Best of luck to you.

  36. nnn*

    They should invent a “Thanks!” button for email. You click the button, and the email gets marked as “Thanked” in the sender’s interface, but it doesn’t clutter up their inbox

      1. Sparkly Librarian*

        That’s precisely what I use the Like button for in Outlook. However, I don’t believe it’s visible if the recipient isn’t also using Outlook.

    1. Triple Anon*

      That would be great! Like those emoticons you can add to messages on an iPhone or Facebook Messenger.

  37. The Ginger Ginger*

    OP #3, another thing you can try is to mock up a monthly budget with the new salary in the new COL and compare it to your current one. You may find that the new salary actually nets out to about the same amount after you’ve paid for all the necessities. Meaning, in Expensive city you have $1000 a month to do whatever you want with after bills and food and gas and whatever else you deem a fixed monthly expense, and in Lowersville, even with the lower pay, you end up with $1000 a month (or more even?) to do whatever you want with. That would be info worth considering, because you wouldn’t really have to change the way you’re living at all, even at the lower salary.

    1. cactus lady*

      Yes this is a good way of framing it, and this is actually what I did when I moved from a very expensive city to a less expensive one. I would recommend adding 10-15% to whatever you think your expenses will be in the new area to make sure you are comfortable with your new salary. For me personally, being used to inflated salaries/COL skewed my perception of what living somewhere “cheaper” would actually mean.

  38. Enya*

    At first I thought it was ridiculous that an adult can’t choose to work somewhere for free, but then I realized that it would be too easy to use this as a scam – to say you’re working for free, but then secretly get paid in cash.

    1. Annie Moose*

      More importantly, it would make it entirely legal to pressure someone into working for free (or for a very small wage), which is why we have minimum wage laws to begin with.

    2. Bea*

      It’s to also to prevent people from forced free labor. If we allow it, enforcing minimum wage laws become difficult as well.

    3. Wednesday of this week*

      It also eliminates jobs, because suddenly work that would have required paying someone is now available for free. If you want an example: “receptionist at a fitness studio” is not a job that exists, almost anywhere. There’s an economic impact to that.

  39. The Other CC*

    OP#1 – You know, I read your question and thought “oh my goodness, that’s fine! How lovely your community wants to help! Just keep your boundaries really clear and absolutely don’t get used to relying on volunteer help since it’s not sustainable long term.”

    Then I read Alison’s reply and all the comments and whoops – turns out the small business I work for (also tight on cash, also suffering the sudden loss of an owner/manager) has actually broken the law on this! On multiple occasions! Just for major one-day events, like “Come help us move furniture so we can do a much-needed renovation!” I wasn’t working here then, but me and a whole bunch of other friends went over to throw out old papers, move boxes of teapot supplies, box up ready-made teapots…we got paid in donuts in the morning and pizza at night. But we are moving soon, and I was think my boss might be thinking about having another cattle call to clear out some of the junk we’re not taking to the other place. Now that I know it’s definitely not kosher, I feel obligated to bring it up.

    OP#1 – I’m so sorry for your loss. I’m seeing firsthand how difficult it is when a small business loses a leader and the remaining managers/employees have to pivot and adapt to keep the business going. I hope you are taking care of yourself as well as the business.

    1. Amber Rose*

      That kind of illegality is so, so common even among large businesses. The huge chain drug store my husband worked at for a while had a large planogram that they didn’t want to pay a ton of staff overtime to do, so they brought me and a few other spouses/friends of managers in to do it after hours. We were paid, but it was less than minimum, cash and undocumented.

      At the time I accepted it because I really needed that $50, but in hindsight, wow. Just wow. xD

    2. Bears Beets Battlestar*

      I thought that, too! It’s super common for this to happen in my small town. When friends of ours moved their business to a new location, my husband and some others helped lay flooring, paint, etc. Lots of other small, family-owned businesses rely on friends for this sort of help.
      The local dance studio has people volunteer to be room parents and sell tickets for the annual dance recital. Is that illegal, too? I’ve been thinking of more and more examples of this happening and I never questioned the legality of it!

    1. Natalie*

      My company wrote a bunch of email ettiquette explicitly into their overly long email policy. (Why yes I do work in the insurance industry, why do you ask?) Pretty much everyone ignores it.

  40. Triple Anon*

    #1 – I know this might be too much to take on right now, but from a long range perspective, starting a non-profit that’s related to the main business would be an option to look into. The laws about how to start a nonprofit and what kind of relationship it can have with a for-profit vary by state, as I understand. I am not a lawyer.

    Some questions you could ask your lawyer:

    Can you turn your for-profit into a nonprofit? If so, what is the process? (I have heard of this happening, so I think it must be possible, at least in some states.)

    Can you start a nonprofit that operates in the same space and shares some resources with the for-profit? If so, what are the ways in which they need to be separate?

    It sounds like the focus of your business is at least partially non-profit-like – supporting the community, offering events, etc. In other words, you’re not just selling things. So it’s a matter of making the legal part reflect what you’re actually doing and what your goals are.

    Also, this isn’t the first time I’ve heard of this kind of situation coming up. It’s legally confusing even for people who have lived in the US their whole lives. It sounds like you’re trying to do the right thing. I hope it all works out.

  41. Natalie*

    OP #1, something else to keep in mind is that you could accept volunteer help in your personal life, which might free up some mental capacity to do more of the business stuff. The business can also accept donations, provided you pay taxes on it as income. (Donors wouldn’t be allowed to deduct it on their taxes, either.)

  42. Independent George*

    #2 – I used to find Thank You replies annoying too. But now I’m in the confirmation-of-receipt camp as Alison suggested. Two reasons why: 1) I work directly with clients and email is documentation. I don’t expect a Thank You from clients, but it’s nice to know when an issue is put to rest. I may even add a, “no further action needed,” if necessary. 2) I work remotely and do have have regular face time with colleagues. Email and instant messaging compensate for the lack of face time in the world of remote employees.

  43. Old Soul Millenial*

    This was a weird one for me to get used to when I started working (at a university). As someone that grew up using more emails than mailed letters, it was odd to me that people would want to know if or that I received their email. I mean, if you sent it to my email address, of course I received it. Unlike snail mail, there aren’t environmental factors to damage the mail en route. It actually came up during my yearly review: “People seem to think you’re standoffish on emails when you don’t acknowledge what they sent. I know you’re not, so just do better about confirmations.”

    However, as others have pointed out, its also confirmation that what was in the email was what was needed/wanted. I actually grew to like this system because it allows for better triage of a cluttered inbox. I will go without responding to certain emails if I know the person will follow up (i.e. those that I typically would respond back with a “Thanks!”) because their request can be handled after I’m dealing with the crise du jour dropped off by a Dean who constantly runs around with their hair on fire.

    1. Pibble*

      Funny, I have the opposite reaction you did — I’ve had far more emails mysteriously not arrive, or get routed into someone’s spam box they never check, or get so buried under an overfull email inbox that the person doesn’t see them, or get accidentally sent to the wrong address than I’ve ever had snail mail disappear. Heck, the other day our postman delivered a package that had the last two digits of our street address transposed because he recognized it had been misaddressed!

  44. Creag an Tuire*

    OP #3: I suspect the only reason that “rule” exists is because if you’re ever applying somewhere that asks for a full salary history since high school, someone might spot a pay drop and think “Ah-hah! This person must’ve been on the verge of firing, to jump ship for a lower salary!” But, leaving aside that asking for a salary history is hopefully going out of style, it should be pretty easy to explain why you’d take a pay cut in moving from New York to North Dakota.

  45. Squirrel*

    OP #1: I hope you scroll down the comments section far enough for this. Welcome to the boardgame community! I’m not sure how your financials are, but just in case you have any issues, please check out the Jack Vasel Memorial Fund (www dot jackvasel dot org). It’s a memorial fund started by the person who runs the Dice Tower boardgame review series, Tom Vasel; it is for boardgamers who are experiencing hardships for whatever reason. The boardgame community is great and supportive, and I hope you can find help if you need it.

  46. Itsa me - OP #3*

    Hi all!

    First off a giant thank you to Alison and your readers for confirming what I had been thinking – it’s more about the salary at the location than it is about keeping the same salary. Your advice gave me the confidence to accept the offer (which was only a bit less than what I currently make plus a signing bonus!) happily, and I’m so excited to announce that I’ll be moving south in 3 weeks! Now to pack….

    Thanks again!

  47. not so sweet*

    I was wondering whether there are ways that the supportive customers can help out OP’s store that are more like community-building and not so much like employee-tasks – for example, maybe it would be helpful if they could do stuff like organize game tournaments, run events that get new people into the store and clean up after the events, get a local convention to offer the OP a display booth at a bargain price, stuff like that, so that the OP doesn’t have to worry as much about maintaining/building clientele and community, while she’s getting her feet back under her figuring out how many hours she can keep the store open herself and what she can manage to pay an employee or what tasks she can contract out to make up for what her partner used to do.

  48. Devoted Lurker*

    One thing a lot of us lawyers/law students/wonks often forget is that “illegal” to normal people* means “the cops will come and arrest you and you will go to jail.” And so it’s hard to believe that something like this is *really* illegal, because who’s ever heard of a person being arrested for having a friend cover the register? I think that’s what’s behind many people pushing back on the statement that “this is illegal.” Just something to keep in mind.

    *No, don’t argue, you know we’re the weirdos.

    1. Cassie the First*

      This times 1000! I’ve had the hardest time trying to explain to some people at work that doing something that is prohibited by federal law is illegal. Just because no one (read: authority figure) has stopped you from doing it, or you haven’t suffered any legal repercussions, doesn’t mean that it’s not illegal. Instead, they act like “well, I was able to do this thing, so that means it’s fine. If it wasn’t fine, it wouldn’t have worked or the authority figure would have stopped me”.

Comments are closed.