can my employer lay me off and ask me to volunteer?

A reader writes:

My employer, a medium-sized nonprofit, is experiencing a lot of understandable fundraising and budget anxiety during COVID-19. While I know everyone’s doing the best they can to prevent cuts to staff or layoffs, I heard through a coworker this week that one idea our CEO has been kicking around has been to lay off all the organization’s employees, have them collect unemployment, and ask them to volunteer for the organization for the duration of their unemployment eligibility.

Aside from the general ickiness I feel about this proposal, which is not yet a certainty (unemployment won’t equal my salary; will they still provide healthcare coverage?), is this legal?

WTF, this is a terrible and offensive idea.

First of all, unemployment benefits are for people who are actually unemployed. It’s not a way to get the government to fund your employees’ salaries while you have them continue to work. I don’t know if this is explicitly illegal or not, but it’s absolutely contrary to how it’s supposed to work, and I suspect your unemployment office would not look kindly on it.

Plus, as you point out, unemployment benefits are a portion of your salary, not the entire thing. They’re proposing that you continue doing your job while your income is cut significantly (and paid for with tax money rather than from their own funds).

Then there’s the fact that to receive unemployment benefits, you generally need to be engaging in an active job search (that’s been suspended in some states right now, but not all).

There’s also the fact that while the Fair Labor Standards Act does allow nonprofits to use volunteers (which it doesn’t allow for-profit businesses to do), those volunteers cannot displace regular employed workers or perform work that would otherwise be performed by regular employees. And if volunteers are treated too much like employees, they can be deemed to be employees … with wages owed to them.

There’s a ton wrong with this. But the biggest thing wrong is that they’re proposing shifting all of the burden off of themselves: You’ll take a pay cut, someone else will pay that money, not them, and they’ll still get the same work they’re getting now, just for free.

It doesn’t matter that they’re a nonprofit. They don’t get to do that.

{ 197 comments… read them below }

  1. Hawthorne*

    This is absolutely awful. These people are acting pretty skeevy about this.

    One point though, I think that currently, the requirement to look for work has been waived because there’s an understanding that many people will get their jobs back later.

    1. Linz*

      Yes, this is correct – I am getting furloughed for 90 days and am eligible for unemployment; the job search requirement has been waived (here in Georgia, at least).

    2. RussianInTexas*

      Well, and also, if your job is literally closed due to the pandemic, as in, you are a waiter, for example, there are no other jobs of same type available. There are no jobs to search for.

    3. Skeeder Jones*

      It is also being waived due to the fact that whole industries are straight up closed right now, so someone who lost a restaurant or tourism job can’t find work in those industries and their skills may not transfer to other industries that are hiring.

      1. Not a Girl Boss*

        Yeah, I imagine there’s not a whole lot of “event planning” openings posted right now to even apply to.

        Although, what are the requirements for unemployment eligibility purposes? Do you actually have to apply to jobs you’re qualified for? Do you have to apply to jobs you’re over-qualified for if no qualified job openings exist?

        1. Naomi*

          It probably varies by state. From what I remember when I was last job searching, I had to take a certain number of actions per week to prove I was actively looking, but besides applying for jobs it included interviewing, or going to networking events, or calling a recruiter.

    4. B.*

      Even before this in my state if you were temporarily laid off you didn’t need to job search. When I was in that position (scheduled seasonal closure) I just put a note in the relevant section and took a vacation.
      What difference it makes that there’s uncertainty around when places will be able to reopen (hopeful dates but can’t be sure and keep getting extended from what I see) I’m not sure.

      1. TardyTardis*

        I had a friend who was laid off from a plant nursery from Christmas till March because, you know, winter. I don’t think she was required to search because all of her little plant friends were closed till the sun returned.

  2. Detective Amy Santiago*

    This whole situation is highlighting both the best and worst of humanity.

    When it’s all over, there need to be lists of which is which so we know who to support financially.

    1. So Anon for This!!*

      I agree. Like Hobby Lobby, billionaire owners, they want their employees to work and possibly be exposed to the virus, and don’t pay sick time.

      1. MiaHouse*

        Actually, Hobby Lobby just fired all its workers today. Right in time to need to scramble for insurance before their benefits end in about 36 hours.

        1. Hills to Die On*

          I hate that company. I really haven’t been political about where I shop but I will make an exception for Hobby Lobby.

          1. RVA Cat*

            I really hope they never reopen.
            Here locally, I hope all the employees get hired by a major grocery chain that happens to be unionized.

            1. boop the first*

              I worked in a grocery chain that was unionized. They posted a marketing video thanking grocery workers for going to work during this event. They were also the ones who closed a bunch of stores recently, specifically to dump the remaining workers who were paid a living wage, so that they can replace them with minimum wage workers with no benefits. The union could do nothing, since they bargained away their right to strike, and they divided the employees into Haves and Have-nots, so the Haves got no support. It’s over for unionized service workers.

              1. TardyTardis*

                Harry and David ‘declared bankruptcy’ so they could dump all their pension obligations on the federal government. Needless to say, I have not bought a basket from them since.

          2. MCMonkeyBean*

            Same. My boycott threshold is honestly pretty high, and Hobby Lobby is one of the only things on my list.

        2. Red Reader the Adulting Fairy*

          So, while I am hardly a HL fan, what I’m seeing is that they fired *32 employees* in the corporate art and creative department via email and cut lots of other people’s pay, because they still have quite a few stores that are open per usual. If there’s a reliable source with more details regarding the “all its workers” claim, I’d love to see it, but I can’t find anything to that effect.

          1. Diahann Carroll*

            Yeah, while laying people off suddenly by email is a shitty thing to do, 32 people is different from everyone.

          2. Duvie*

            If true, it’s despicable. And if God truly has been sending their CEO’s wife personal messages, I don’t imagine the next one will be terribly amused.

        3. Zephy*

          And just in the nick of time so they don’t have to pay anything out under the new sick leave law.

        4. Where’s the Orchestra?*

          If that’s true (will go confirm in a min) that’s just reason number 10,000 that I never take my crafting dollars there.

        5. Artemesia*

          You have a 60 days grace with COBRA but people with crappy jobs like Hobby Lobby probably don’t have the means to actually pay for COBRA.

          Hobby Lobby — Christian business LOL

      1. AVP*

        Hear, hear…this is really exposing those who aren’t.

        See also: another employer went public over the weekend with their plans to cut staff salaries by $1,200 AND take half of each person’s $500-per-child benefit! The chutzpah…

          1. AVP*

            oh it’s the company they’re talking about right below this post! They sent out papers to their staff to sign with the agreement and I guess you fill in your government info and they take it…absolutely ridiculous and I’m glad they’re being flamed for it everywhere online.

      2. Tink*

        Especially when you took a lawsuit all the way to the Supreme Court demanding a religious exemption for your employee health plan. WWJD????

      1. Aneurin*

        Part of me really hopes that’s the company the recent letter writer works for — because otherwise that means there are at least two companies out there trying the same thing…

        1. florence without machines*

          There are two companies at least; there’s the letter and someone also mentioned something in an open thread.

          1. AVP*

            the post here was a national restaurant chain so there are at least a few! I’m sure some talking head mentioned the idea on business TV or something.

            1. Blah*

              Reminds me of when I worked for Sam’s club. Their employee emergency compensation plan was directing employees to apply for state funded programs (health insurance, food stamps, rent assistance)

              They intentionally shorted full time employees on their hours so they didn’t qualify for the health insurance and worked part time people (full time hours), but because you were labelled “part time”, you didn’t qualify for health insurance. Almost every employee was on state health insurance and other state funded assistance (all encouraged by management)

              1. Not a Girl Boss*

                Same with Walmart. I won’t shop at companies that actively cost me tax dollars by deliberately exploiting loopholes to avoid offering benefits. I like to believe that in the long run, we’ll save money by paying a bit more for food and less in welfare, but alas probably not.

                1. Blah*

                  Same, it’s pretty bad when a billion dollar company whines they can’t afford to pay their employees living wages, but it’s ok for tax payers to Shell out our hard earned money to pay their employees benefits.

      2. Mascara Pony*

        Some of my clients use their services; we’re already recommending replacements. That’s beyond scummy.

    2. I See Real People*

      I am so on board with this. I would not want to ever work for a company that mistreated people during this time.

    3. B.*

      I’ve been impressed with Nordstrom, if anybody needs good news (or maybe I’m just being bamboozled).

      1. Saccharissa*

        As someone who works at Nordstrom, I agree. I feel that they’ve done as well by us as they possibly could. Our store has been closed for two weeks, and I’m currently sitting at home with full pay. I just hope they aren’t forced to lay a bunch of people off after this is all over.

    4. Chatterby*

      This is definitely one of those “contact that reporter and shame them to death” situations, because WOW

  3. CupcakeCounter*

    Sounds like a great way to ensure the non-profit loses all of their donations when word gets out (and it will). Possibly impact the tax status as well (not positive on that though).

    1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

      Definitely agree with point number one. If leadership goes through with this they are going to make their organization radioactive when the pandemic eases and life begins to return to whatever we declare to be normal.

  4. Caleb*

    I would encourage the OP to check the details of their state unemployment insurance during this time. Minnesota has rolled out a number of program to address just this issue. One in particular requires than an employer commit to keep a worker on payroll. If they do, state unemployment & the employer will *together* pay the the salary of that employee equal to the unemployment insurance rate (with the state unemployment fund paying the majority of the salary). My sister is HR at a Community Action organization in Northern Minnesota & this is currently saving her payroll and organization.

    This is a time of uncertainty and panic, but employers should most assuredly not act like this.

    1. Minnesota Gal*

      This in incredible. I live in Minnesota and this is the first I’m hearing of this type of program. Do you have any more details or know where more information can be found? I’d be grateful!

    2. MusicWithRocksIn*

      Michigan is doing something similar although I don’t know much about it. A friends work was going to use the program, then just went ahead and laid everyone off, so that was the last I heard about it.

    1. Blue*

      I mean…the CEO or the nonprofit I work for was a theater major in college. Lack of formal business education is no excuse for blatant exploitation!

      1. JustaTech*

        I’m pretty sure this was covered in the “Nonprofits for Dummies” book I read in grad school. (Yes, it’s a real book, and frankly, a lot better written than some of the other textbooks I had for that class.)

      2. The Man, Becky Lynch*

        Exactly! I don’t need a college course to teach me that you can’t just take advantage of an insurance program. There are very distinct reasons for any said insurance plan, you use it correctly or you don’t use it at all. It’s pretty basic!

        1. a passerby*

          If it’s a nonprofit, I can see why they’d be doing this. Maybe the CEO believes in their mission a lot and is arguing to themselves “It’s better to continue our mission with government funds then to close down”.

  5. Elizabeth T.*

    Make sure your nonprofit has been paying into unemployment. They can opt out in our state. You may not actually qualify for it.

    1. pandq*

      When they opt out of the state unemployment system, doesn’t that mean they self-fund? I have always advised against that but that’s a possibility.

      1. Natalie*

        Depends on the state, but in my state yes, if they opt out of the UI tax they have to self-fund. And if they stop paying into the fund that would handled between the state and the organization, it wouldn’t prevent the worker from receiving their payments.

        The only organizations I’m aware of that are allowed to opt out completely are churches.

      2. Julie S.*

        There are some exclusions allowing a non-profit charity to avoid unemployment taxes depending on the state laws.

      3. HermioneMe*

        I worked for a non profit church in Nevada. Was laid off last summer. They did not have into unemployment. So I was without work and without unemployment. I Had to take a temp job not in my field immediately. I did get hired full time recently with them for a lot more money than the church paid. And it’s in an industry that does not have to shut down. So all in all it worked out for me….but yes some non profits do not pay into unemployment.

    2. DCGirl*

      Religious institutions, in particular, are not required to pay into unemployment. I learned that one the hard way when I was laid off by the Salvation Army.

      1. une autre Cassandra*

        I’m on a committee supporting an extended learning center through my church and we just found out the church has never paid into UI. We’re all pretty horrified and looking to rectify that to protect current and future employees. Big lesson learned.

        1. Western Rover*

          I should have my daughter look at her pay stubs to see if the church that employs her pays into UI. Fortunately they’re continuing to pay her even though she’s not working (she sorts donated goods at a second-hand store that’s closed for the time being).

  6. Observer*

    I’m guessing that it’s probably not legal for the non-profit to do. An you can bet that if they do this to more than a very small portion of the staff, someone IS going to be looking at possible fraud. That kind of investigation can be devastating, even when you haven’t done anything illegal. And, in this case the devastation would be TOTALLY deserved.

    The only thing Allison is wrong about is the requirement to be looking for work – given the shelter in place orders and social distancing guidance in place. most states are temporarily waiving the search for work requirement. Also, the 3xtra $600 per week in the stimulus bill might help cover the difference for the first few weeks.

    Please find out if what your coworker said is true. Because if your CEO is actually seriously considering this, then I’d be polishing up my resume NOW and launching a serious job hunt the minute things start improving. Because this is just so awful.

    1. Liane*

      Re work search requirements — some states may still have them. My state (Arkansas) hasn’t completely removed job search requirements, as of last week. If you have reduced hours, like me, any week you work at least 8 hours, the requirement is waived. Not that the requirements are onerous — 3 job contacts per week and they can be phone, online, etc.

  7. Vertigo*

    I can’t speak to every state (and I’m certainly not an employment lawyer), but I’m pretty sure at least in NY you don’t get unemployment pay if you’re doing full time volunteer work….

    1. Lena Clare*

      I can imagine that being so.
      In the UK it has to be under 16 hours a week otherwise it affects your unemployment benefits.

      1. une autre Cassandra*

        Really? Even if you’re doing all the required job hunting work in addition to volunteering?

    2. doreen*

      Actually you can receive unemployment in NY while doing volunteer work, even full time as long as it’s true volunteer work ( you aren’t getting paid in any way, including something like a tuition abatement ) , it’s not a pre-condition for being hired or rehired into a paid job, and the volunteering doesn’t limit the days/hours you are willing to work or interfere with your job search.

  8. Terrysg*

    Is the work that the non-profit does considered essential? If not it’s likely they may be told to close anyway.

    1. Justme, The OG*

      The nonprofit that my mom works for is not essential but they’re still open as far as their employees are working from home and they’re trying to keep everyone on payroll for as long as possible (with voluntary pay cuts from the executives).

      1. SunnyPorch*

        And THAT is how a non-profit (ie. In the business of doing a social good) should roll. The top execs should be as committed to the mission as the front line staff. Kudos to your mom’s execs!

    2. ap*

      Businesses don’t have to close if they are nom-essential. They just can’t require workers to a place of business. (In the states where this is the mandate, anyway)

    1. Diahann Carroll*

      Very unethical. I swear, some of these employers are just asking for their good employees to roll out once this virus slows and things return to (semi) normal.

      1. WorkingGirl*

        me too, but honestly it would not surprise me at ALL if a non-profit did this. I worked for a non-profit in the past (large organization, household name), and when scheduling people to work after-hours events, I was initially told that if the event was similar to a person’s job description, they got their normal hourly rate for the event; but if it was not related to the job description (like, if they worked in finance but were scheduled to participate in an outreach event), it could be “volunteering.” I basically called BS and fought for everyone to get paid hourly for all work for the company.

          1. WorkingGirl*

            Yeah – which makes sense, although I didn’t (and still don’t!) feel like it was ethically correct, especially since most of our employees were NOT well-paid as it was, so it didn’t seem fair to ask them to work even MORE.

      2. That Girl from Quinn's House*

        Yup, when I was with a nonprofit that was the rules. An administrative assistant could volunteer to paint faces or teach a kids’ class, but they could not volunteer to do administrative tasks for free.

        Doesn’t mean that sometimes the managers didn’t try to pull a fast one on their staff, but it was explicitly not allowed.

      3. PNW Dweller*

        NJ Anon, your understanding is correct. I work for a non-profit. Many people work for an org they like and will want to volunteer to complete a job if they are out of hours. Not what this CEO wants to do, since it’s voluntary, but my answer is thank you, I appreciate your dedication, but you can’t. Integrity is important.

  9. Betty Anyway*

    This might seem crazy but I was already looking into whether I could volunteer to work under these circumstances. I know I’ll get called back to work and honestly my life will be so much harder if I don’t at least do some basic communication in the meantime. I’d rather throw in a few hours here and there to make future me’s life easier. We determined it probably wouldn’t be legally possible to do so.

      1. Mr. Shark*

        I agree. Do you want to be volunteering and going in to work, not get paid, for a non-essential function? You are just risking exposure to the virus with no real benefit to yourself.

    1. many bells down*

      I work at one nonprofit as paid staff and volunteer at a different, unrelated nonprofit. I CANNOT do any of the paid duties where I’m a volunteer. They’re very clearly separate job duties. Likewise, I’m prohibited from volunteering at my actual work; I can’t do anything that would take me over my weekly hours and say it’s for free.

      I did once work at a nonprofit that “required” employees to “volunteer” for their annual fund drive, but thankfully I think they were in the minority.

    2. Generic Name*

      Maybe you could offer to have your hours cut so they pay you for 10 hours a week (or whatever). Several people at my company have volunteered to have their hours cut (or even take a leave of absence if necessary).

    3. Koala dreams*

      Why can’t your employer pay you for part-time work? Does it need to be all or nothing?

  10. Snarkus Aurelius*

    When I worked at a nonprofit during the Great Recession, the CEO wanted to layoff the entire fundraising staff and hire unpaid interns to do the work instead. He suggested this so very matter of fact too.

    So I believe this letter is very realistic.

    1. florence without machines*

      ah, yes, the best way to make sure you have tons of fundraising money coming in is to make sure the people who are doing it don’t know what they’re doing and don’t have any experience. That’ll work.

      1. AMT*

        This is a great example of the way that some nonprofits categorize certain kinds of work as “intern work” or “volunteer work” without a clear understanding of the specialized skills needed to do that work and the consequences of letting a random unpaid person handle it. See also: running support groups, dealing with the public in any form, web design, graphic design, marketing.

        1. florence without machines*

          My entire body just recoiled in horror at the idea of an intern running a support group.

          1. AMT*

            Tell me about it. I’m a therapist and have found that it’s routine to let less experienced staff handle group work at mental health clinics/programs. It’s a common rite of passage for MSW interns, often only a few weeks into grad school and with little to no group experience. Same with peer support workers and non-clinical staff, many of whom have scant training in group dynamics. Needless to say, I’ve witnessed plenty of disastrous groups. There’s little appreciation for how complex and challenging it is to run a group, whether it’s a mutual aid group or professionally (or “professionally”) led.

    2. annakarina1*

      During the recession, I worked at a magazine that I started as an intern at, and then got a laughable daily stipend as “Assistant Editor.” I did transcribing and wrote and edited their weekly online newsletter and a lot of other stuff, but was essentially an unpaid intern with a weak stipend. Looking back, I do regret letting myself put up with it, but I just really liked their content and wanted to be a part of it, and realized that they just saw me as essentially free labor without any actual respect for me.

    3. The Original K.*

      Oh, I saw LOTS of listings for full-time unpaid interns that were job descriptions for laid-off full-time salaried workers during the Great Recession. Lots. In certain sectors in NYC, it became the norm.

      1. whingedrinking*

        There’s a notorious story over on notalwaysright.com about a new manager at an engineering firm who fired an employee for not having an engineering degree, assuming that she was kept around as a “pretty face”. When the engineers informed him that she had a PhD in applied mathematics and her work was in fact essential to the project they were developing, the manager said they’d just get a couple of unpaid interns and everything would be fine! (Spoiler: everything was not fine.)
        You can search the story as “Engineering a Problem”.

    4. That Girl from Quinn's House*

      I worked at a nonprofit that used to do working interviews, say, they’d put a prospective front desk employee at the front desk for a few hours as an interview to see if they’d fit in. (I hated this, how can you see how someone will fit in as an employee if you ask them to work with no training or direction? Especially at an entry-level gig that required no experience.)

      In a meeting someone said, “Oh working interviews! So if we’re short staffed we can just do a ton of interviews and get some shifts covered for free to make budget better.”

    5. Massmatt*

      I think the nonprofit would have been better off laying off the CEO and bringing in unpaid interns to replace him. How could they do worse?

  11. annakarina1*

    No, that’s awful and messed-up.

    The last time I was on unemployment (I’ve been on it about three times during my career over a decade), I did volunteer work for two non-profits to stay busy and have a work schedule, but would only work on a part-time basis, and I always got to take a day off if I had a job interview. I was using UI benefits to get by until I got a real job, and would be heavily insulted if a job ever tried to do this with me.

    And during the recession, I would do part-time work while trying to get full-time work, and it always frustrated me at the number of places that just wanted me to volunteer for them in exchange for some kind of perk (like free dance classes at a dance arts non-profit), and if I ever did volunteer at these places, like doing office work, I was often treated in a dismissive way like “the help” by snobby hipsters, and resented my limited options. I don’t like that I was easily taken advantage of back then, but I know a lot better now not to settle for that kind of treatment.

    1. Snarkus Aurelius*

      Might as well name and shame….

      In early 2001, the Democratic Leadership Coalition needed an executive assistant. The job paid around $23k before taxes. They explicitly did NOT want to hire someone who wanted career growth AND “the job pays what it pays because that’s all we have so we really want someone focused on the mission.”

      Okay but maybe don’t pay poverty wages in the nation’s capitol?

  12. CatCat*

    Problematic for so many reasons. And why would anyone even agree to do this after being laid off?

    I don’t get why the CEO is thinking that a bunch of people are going to come back as volunteers after the org lays them off.

    1. Quill*

      It’s for the cause!

      I know we get at least as many for-profit awful letters here but I’ve noticed that the toxic nonprofits always have the same theme of “we’re too important / special / good of a cause to follow rules or even good sense”

      1. florence without machines*

        “We’re exceptional so we can do horrible things” is, alas, a common theme in media. Example A: House MD.

      2. Starbuck*

        Yes, the dangerous, toxic trap of moral licensing. I wish people talked about it more. Basically exactly what you described – you’re doing good in one way, so that gets you off the hook for other immoral behavior, since you’ve ‘earned’ it or ‘balanced’ it.

      3. HairApparent*

        Speaking from my current personal experience, I can confirm that you are 1000% on the nose. For now, we are all working from home and on the payroll, but previous toxic behavior and decision-making keeps my stomach in knots every day. I had a couple of solid prospects come JUST before the big shutdown that are currently on hold, so silver lining!

      4. Salymander*

        Yeah, my mom used to work for a (very large &well known) nonprofit. They would shame employees into giving back a big chunk of their pay and volunteering a huge amount of their free time for events and fundraising. Not just once in awhile, either. They even shamed them if their friends and family were not involved. I had just had a baby and money was very tight. We have certain charitable causes that we give to (ones with a better track record), but other than that we were pinching every penny. I had been hospitalized multiple times for a number of very serious (in one case life threatening) issues. My mom was harassed about it because I had helped with a event one time, and my health problems made that unlikely to happen again. So Mom was written up by her manager for insufficient dedication to the cause. Mom was also written up after saying that she couldn’t afford to give back any more money. The woman was in her mid 60s, had cancer and was getting ready to retire. She needed every bit of money she could scrape together. But the supervisor wanted the glory of having 100% staff commitment to the cause or whatever.

    2. Kes*

      Presumably the threat/carrot is whether they get rehired at the end. Those who don’t “volunteer” I would presume might find themself out of a job at the end of this.

      1. florence without machines*

        If enough people don’t volunteer, will there be a non-profit left for them to go back to? If so, it all comes out the same in the end. If not, it all comes out the same in the end.

      2. RC Rascal*

        It’s very possible the volunteers won’t be hired back, either. At least not some of them.

    3. The Original K.*

      I had the same thought. Why would I have loyalty in this situation? Even if I believe strongly in the cause the nonprofit supports, I would still be more likely to look for a job in that space that, you know, pays.

      1. florence without machines*

        Plus, would I assume that someplace that did this won’t do something else as outrageous in the future?

  13. Trek*

    If I was asked to do this, besides questioning how legal it is, my response would be ‘You First.’ You accept being laid off and collect and live on unemployment benefits and then show up every day to do your job as a volunteer. I still wouldn’t do it but I doubt the CEO is including himself in this plan.

    1. florence without machines*

      CEO may have enough savings that they might not think it’s an undurable hardship to go without salary for a few months.

      But yes, always and forever: You First.

      1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

        More than likely they have enough savings to survive fine for more than a few months.

        Every time I see these stories about the “CEO took a salary cut and is now only making 10k a year!”, my response is “because they’ve been stock piling their millions of dollars, so a few months of scraps aren’t bringing them down anything…”

        It’s just another tax-writeoff for the rich.

        1. Quill*

          Unfortunately, Jeff Bezos has already set the bar so low for action on this that everyone else looks good by comparison.

        2. Caroline*

          It’s worse than that: their salary may only be $10k, but their “incentive package” (bonus) will still be in the hundreds of thousands or millions.

        3. The Gollux, Not a Mere Device*

          Agreed.

          FDR’s “dollar a year men” were volunteering to work for the US government for that token one dollar annual salary. Everyone knew they had money from other sources, but it wasn’t “a dollar a year in salary, plus all these ‘bonuses.”

  14. Gross*

    The German government has issued a law that the state would step in and help people and businesses who can’t afford their rent. The law was rushed and a loop hole had allowed Adidas and HM (who made 3.7 billion euro profit last year) to get their rents paid by the taxpayers money meant for the poorest in need.

    OP’s CEO should start to work for Adidas, seems it would be a good cultural fit.

    1. Starbuck*

      That’s disgusting, won’t be buying from them again if I can help it. Almost as bad as the foreign-flagged cruise ships begging for U.S. tax money.

  15. Kes*

    I think your best bet if it comes down to it is pointing out what Alison said: according to the Fair Labor Standards Act, volunteers cannot displace regular employed workers or perform work that would otherwise be performed by regular employees. And if volunteers are treated too much like employees, they can be deemed to be employees with wages owed to them.
    In this case, I can’t see how what they are suggesting would not meet those criteria. I would go to your boss and point out that they may not realize this, but actually what they are suggesting is not allowed by law.

  16. The Man, Becky Lynch*

    This screams “insurance fraud”, like the CEO is really sideways thinking you can just suckle of of an insurance program that’s already stretched to burst right now. I bet they think the EI folks are so stretched thin that they won’t be investigating fraud. So unethical it burns my brain.

    1. Diahann Carroll*

      Oh, they’ll still investigate no matter how busy they get, lol. The CEO better not play this game.

      1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

        Yes! They’re also still doing all they have to do on a regular day to verify claims!

        This is a mass crisis but that doesn’t mean they’re just rubber stamping things. So all the hair brained ideas out there, just yikes.

        1. Diahann Carroll*

          Yikes is the word. When I was a claims adjuster during hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, I averaged 150 claims on my plate a month – and those were just the hurricane claims, never mind the thefts, vandalism, freeze claims, etc. I still investigated every. single. claim. And when something didn’t look right, I sent the claim file to my special investigations claim unit for further, in-depth investigations that sometimes included things like surveillance and sworn statements (which can and will be used against insureds in court proceedings).

          At the end of the day, no matter how busy I was, I had an obligation to my company and other insureds not pay for things that weren’t owed. When people commit insurance fraud, they’re causing insurers to raise rates, which negatively impacts customers who are doing the right thing, but now have to pay more because losses were inflated – insurance is a risk pooling mechanism, and people seem to forget that.

  17. Nessa*

    Here in NYS, the website is slammed and the phone calls to the unemployment office aren’t going through. They have indeed waived the requirement to look for a job, and their software on the site to do so is disabled outright.

  18. Marthooh*

    Uuuggghhhhhhh. It’s one thing to kick an idea around when it’s just silly or impractical; immoral ideas are bad for morale.

  19. CoffeeforLife*

    OP, Tell them they’re a few days early, April fool’s day isn’t until the first. This is obviously a joke from your employer because they couldn’t be this selfish and unethical, right?!

  20. QCI*

    The massive set of balls you would need to actually do that wouldn’t fit in any known size of pants.

  21. kadidi*

    Right now employers are absolutely overwhelmed causing weird, bad decisions to be tossed around.
    If they did a little research, aren’t they eligible for benefits under the CARES Act that was just signed? Under this they could continue to keep you working and pay you with paycheck protection loans, but then get 100% loan forgiveness; it’s specifically designed to keep people paid and working the hours they can.
    Lots of places are getting creative and not all creative ideas are good. I’m hoping this was one idea they kicked around, but they’re still hashing out what to do!

    1. Fikly*

      Nah, this site has plenty of evidence that weird, unethical, bad decisions are not unique to crisis situations.

    2. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      Right?

      The problem is that they are all drawing on “what they know” and all they know right now is “unemployment is a thing.”. They don’t understand the new enactments. They don’t understand that the Stimulus Package came with more than just 1200 checks, etc.

      It really is a sad reality that even when you’re high up in leadership and actually own or run a company, you don’t always understand the options or how to obtain them. They don’t want to do it the new way because it’s “unknown” as well, so they’d rather try to game an old system not set up for their schemes. It’s a GD mess.

      I’m still trying to explain to people the stimulus checks aren’t taxable income and it’s an advance on a new credit that will be available for 2020 filing. You’d think I was explaining how to build a rocketship.

  22. Thomas*

    Yes, this is a terrible and almost certainly illegal idea. But let’s have a little compassion for the CEO, and also recognize that this is a third-hand telling of an “idea our CEO has been kicking around”. The CEO is trying to figure out how to best take care of employees AND continue to deliver on the organization’s mission during a national crisis. There’s no evidence in the letter that this was anything more than the CEO saying this out loud, and maybe someone saying they’d look into the feasibility. Which would come back with a resounding “No!” if the person checking is at all competent. If it went or goes farther than that, then sure, that’s really bad. But the reaction here seems a overblown with the amount of information given about how serious a proposal this is.

    1. LKW*

      While I like that you’re offering up something positive, I think this is a very naive position. People are going to protect the things they value, and sometimes ethics goes out the window while people are trying to protect their own interests. If the work can continue, then there is no reason for layoffs. If the work can’t continue because payroll is short, then layoffs are appropriate and those let go should assume they need to find new employment and not be asked to use any time to support the organization that just let them go. If they want to volunteer, that decision should always come from the employee side, not the employer side. There is no guarantee that their positions will be available when this is over and employees should act accordingly.

      If I found that an organization I support did this, I’d struggle with whether to support them going forward. Additionally, if I found that this approach didn’t start with those at the top, who can best support themselves temporarily, even if it were reduced salary or no salary on a month per month basis, I’d find their leadership severely lacking.

      1. MicroManagered*

        I think this is a very naive position.

        I think it’s pretty dismissive to call this naive. Now, more than ever, is the time to be generous in our assessments of the motives of others.

        1. Madame X*

          Calling this a naive position is being very generous. I think LKW is actually being kind to the previous commentator. What the CEO is proposing is completely disrupting the income of all of the employees of the organization (and of course not his income) while still benefiting from their labor.
          The only grace I would give is that this is third-hand information. It is possible that this is not the solution the CEO himself has actually proposed.
          However, if this information is true then I think this shows a severe lack of leadership.

            1. LKW*

              I’m open to all suggestions on how to say Thomas is giving a lot of potentially undue credit to the CEO. We’re all working with limited information so a lot of assumptions are being made. I’m assuming that Thomas is much more ethical than the CEO at the root of the story and that’s why he’s offering to give the CEO the benefit of the doubt. I on the other hand assume the CEO is not terribly ethical just based off of what I’m reading.

              How would I frame this better? What is the appropriate language to use?

              I don’t think naive is a bad term – it usually means that the person has a more positive outlook or hasn’t run into the seamier side of things – which may or may not be true. They could simply be more forgiving or patient than the rest of us, but as I said, I’m open to alternatives.

              1. RachelB*

                TBH, I think the phrasing you just used in your first line there is much better: it’s a comment on the specific action (giving undue credit) vs the other which is more trait/person centred (naive position).

    2. Observer*

      *IF* (and I agree that it’s a big if) the CEO is seriously considering this as an option, then the CEO is most definitely NOT “trying to figure out how to best take care of employees AND continue to deliver on the organization’s mission during a national crisis”

      Because if you care at all about your employees, you don’t expect to fire them and then require them to still continue to take the effort and risk of volunteering.

      1. fposte*

        Yes, I’m understanding that this is a game of telephone here and what the OP heard may not be exactly what the CEO said. But if the CEO actually inquired out loud about whether they could request their laid off staff volunteer for their own jobs, that’s pretty shocking, even if they don’t follow through on it; it’s too extreme and exploitative to be a normal “let’s spitball the possibilities” option.

    3. LGC*

      I kind of touched on this below, but…this is pretty much foundational for nonprofits! So I think that’s why people (at least myself) are up in arms over this – not only is it a shady scheme to begin with, it’s like…I think the easiest analogy would be if the CEO was talking about how he’d be fine to drive himself home after several drinks.

      He might be problem solving, but this is by no means a workable solution, and I think anyone who has any knowledge of how nonprofits work would be aware of this.

  23. Amethystmoon*

    Just say no. Free work is not owed to them. If they want volunteers, they can always put a request up on local volunteer web sites.

    1. Arctic*

      I agree in theory. The problem is they likely want the job back when this is over. The economy will be a mess and not the time to be looking.

      Employers aren’t naively bumbling along right now. They see the huge power shift and are exploiting it. Employers always hold more power but with a good economy job searching was feasible.

  24. Sheworkshardforthemoney*

    Could OP lose their unemployment benefits if they take part in this scheme? It almost sounds like the organization is committing a form of fraud and if so, they really don’t want to be attached to it in any way.

  25. Courageous cat*

    Didn’t they change something that means unemployment pays 100% of your current salary right now? Did I misunderstand somewhere?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      It will pay $600/week on top of what your regular state benefits are for a few months, which for many people will not mean 100% of their income.

  26. Old Med Tech*

    Trying times bring out the best or worst in people. This the worst. If you are laid off I would look for other work. This employer has shown you who they are.

    1. Retail not Retail*

      So at my non-profit, I couldn’t volunteer to do the dirty work I do now. Guess I’ll have to do literally clean stuff. Office person? Get to mowing!

  27. Employment Lawyer*

    Probably not. There are strict rules for unemployment. There are also strict rules for EMPLOYERS (for example, they cannot attempt to prevent employees from taking UE.)

    Here, this is an attempt to transfer business costs (nonprofits are businesses!) onto the state. Get it in writing and call a local employment lawyer.

  28. Construction Safety*

    So, I’ma guessing that the CEO’s “Plan B” is to dock all employees $1200 for the checks they are about to receive?

  29. Celeste Voyer*

    Wow, so much wrong with this. I was just laid off from a small non-profit (along with all other non-direct-care staff hired in the last six months.) I was so disappointed that the CEO did not try to come up with a creative solution, partial hours, cut his salary, commitment to re-hire., but at least they didn’t; ask me to get let go and then work for free!

  30. Non-profit employee*

    The management at this non-profit should look into the recently-signed stimulus package. There are provisions for loans to non-profits that convert to grants if employees are retained. I will attempt to post link to an article in the Chronicle of Philanthropy that addresses this.

  31. montescristo1985*

    Wow, this is so wrong. This would really make me question the integrity of this organization. I guess I appreciate them trying to figure a way to keep themselves open (presumably, for the purpose of fulfilling their mission), but this is really really not the way.

  32. irene adler*

    And no one in management thinks the feds are wise to this sort of thing?
    Sure, right now there’s no one to look into these things. Too busy with processing claims and such.

    But later on….they’ll catch up to the folks who gamed the system.

    Shame on those who think this is a good idea.

    1. Diahann Carroll*

      But later on….they’ll catch up to the folks who gamed the system.

      This. Trust and believe that if an entire workforce from one employer is let go right now, it’ll be flagged and an investigation of some sort will occur. Insurance companies, even state run ones, are not in the habit of paying fraudulent claims with no repercussions for the perpetrator(s).

  33. LGC*

    …I’m surprised Jill landed back on her feet this quickly.

    Also, while I appreciate Alison enumerating all the ways in which this is wrong, I really think that your question at the end could have been answered in two words: HELL NO. That’s basic nonprofit rules – you can’t use volunteers to do work that is otherwise paid, even if they’re your employees. Even if there’s a pandemic raging.

    (I would have personally used three – AW HELL NAW – but user discretion may vary.)

  34. OP33020*

    OP here. Thanks everyone for your comments – this has been really helpful, but above all, really affirming that my initial reaction to my coworker (basically the first three letters of Alison’s reply) was not out of line.

    One commenter above noted that this is probably the CEO trying to problem-solve, without realizing what a bad idea it is, and hopefully an idea that will never come to fruition. I have the same hope, though I’m not overly pleased that this was their instinct. I’m not really sure what I would do in this circumstance. I’m wrapping up a major (both in terms of its significance to my resume and to the organization) project for this organization right now and would love to see it through – so I hope I can do that as a full-time employee with my agreed upon salary and health benefits.

    Knowing nonprofits, mine isn’t the only one who’s had this idea or will make this ask – so hopefully this post will be helpful to others as well.

    If it helps for other comments or advice, organization is in NY but employees are all over the country and I’m in a different state.

    Thanks again everyone.

    1. LGC*

      Honestly – you’re way more charitable than I’m capable of being.

      For what it’s worth, my company is furloughing most of its employees on projects deemed non-essential (we’re a social enterprise, so…yeah). Somehow, my project got deemed “essential,” which I have…very mixed feelings about. It’s definitely not the ideal response, but it’s at least legal.

      If they’re headquartered in New York (especially downstate)…it is literally Contagion (or whatever pandemic movie you want to choose) down here. So I can imagine if the CEO is there, he’s…probably freaking out, as are the rest of us in the area.

      Wishing you the best of luck, and that either your CEO snaps to his senses or someone tells him that this is a terrible idea.

  35. Archaeopteryx*

    OP, if somehow your employer does try this, please report it to ProPublica or similar organization.

    1. Observer*

      And to every regulatory body that is remotely connected to the mission of the org, and any elected public official who has ever helped them out in any way whatsoever.

  36. Jennifer*

    I thought according to the new coronavirus bill people who collect unemployment would get their full salaries during this time period? Doesn’t make this any less disgusting.

  37. Lauren*

    My employer mentioned doing something similar if we have to work from home, though he said he’d still pay us for the hours we worked at home once we returned to the office, in addition to the unemployment. I wasn’t sure what to make of that at that time, but it’s at least better than this. We are essential, thankfully, so we haven’t had to work from home just yet. I’m hoping we don’t, as my position can’t be done at home and so wouldn’t get anything beyond unemployment.

  38. Koala dreams*

    If the company goes ahead with this scheme, I suggest you say no to the volunteering. If you want to volunteer, there are plenty of people who need help, don’t volunteer at this unethical organisation.

  39. Retail not Retail*

    I thought of the logistics of something like this, forgetting about UI benefits, just being willing to give up our jobs.

    The org still needs MONEY. We got our electric bill, WATER bill, and don’t forget the food.

    For us to function with no money, so many businesses would have to donate their goods.

    Like is the CEO expecting people to chip in on the light bill?

  40. Ralph Wiggum*

    I’m really confused by the spate of recent comments indignant at companies for laying off employees.

    What exactly are you expecting companies to do instead?

    Don’t get me wrong — this might be the worst move for them to make — but it’s not obviously the worst move to me, which a lot of people seem to think it is.

    First, my assumptions:
    1) The company is unable to maintain operations (in-person retail, for example).
    2) This is a sizable company with significant payroll obligations.

    The comments tend to follow the pattern of:
    CEO and/or owner Lord Voldemort has $17 bajillion, but they just laid off everyone!

    The implicit expectation is that Lord Voldemort or the company itself should cover the employees’ pay until operations can resume. Or am I misunderstanding that?

    There are a ton of possible problems here:
    * Is it even possible for the company to cover payroll without its ordinary revenue (presumably vastly diminished)? Do they have the cashflow to support it?
    * Does Lord Voldemort have the authority to make the decision? Wouldn’t that require board approval?
    * Is Lord Voldemort the only equity owner? How do the other owners feel about Lord V personally paying a bunch of money to the employees? Are they obligated to cover payroll as well? What if they don’t have $17 bajillion?
    * Would an investor covering payroll basically amount to another equity purchase? What are the SEC rules for this? What are the tax implications (both for the investor and the company)? How much time would it take the lawyers and accountants to even find out?
    * Just because Lord Voldemort has $17 bajillion, doesn’t mean its liquid. I doubt he’s bathing in gold Scrooge McDuck style. I imagine he’d have to sell off a considerable number of assets to get the cash on hand. This will both take time and increase market volatility. What’s the moral value of contributing to market volatility during uncertain times? Aren’t we already mad at our neighbors doing the flip-side of this by panic-buying toilet paper? It will also mean Lord V will likely pay a cost significantly greater than the payroll costs, since he’ll be selling at a loss.

    Isn’t unemployment insurance the social/legal structure built to handle this case? Is it immoral for companies to take advantage of it? Honest question. I don’t really have knowledge of what it was built to do. I know I dislike WalMart taking advantage of the social safety net to effective shore up their employees’ income, but this seems different.

    If they can’t pay employees, shouldn’t the company lay them off to make the unemployment claim easier?

    1. Ralph Wiggum*

      To clarify, my comment is in response to a bunch of comments across recent posts. It is unrelated to the specific question of asking them to volunteer.

      No, the company / non-profit can’t have it both ways like that.

    2. Retail not Retail*

      I think people want a reduction or furlough because they don’t want to lose their health insurance.

      It’s also that it’s all happening so fast, with so little warning. My place had their Big Meeting on Thursday (originally Wednesday at 1, then Thursday at 9, then at 1, then at 1:30) and we knew they had hard decisions to make but had no idea what was happening in there. My job is safe as is for the next 2 weeks – then we decide AGAIN. Other operations departments are off entirely (hopefully with insurance) or reduced hours.

      I don’t know about everywhere else but the only thing reliably hiring at the moment puts you in way too much contact with the general public.

      As for the CEO’s money – it’s just more of that “oh he’s making a decision that if it affects him it at all will be in a very minuscule way but could lead to the upheaval of my entire life.”

      1. Ralph Wiggum*

        “I think people want a reduction or furlough because they don’t want to lose their health insurance.”

        Some people complained about reductions in the same thread as the lay-offs. I think different people want different things. Or else people just aren’t thinking it through.

        I don’t know exactly what a furlough entails. If it’s unpaid, then hopefully they can get unemployment insurance. If not, how is the company covering it? Also, is there a legal mechanism to furlough someone other than just laying them off with a promise to rehire (outside federal workers)?

        Really, I think it’s a lot of people expressing frustration for a crappy situation, which is totally fine. I get worried when that’s paired with Alison encouraging naming and shaming. It’s not obvious which companies deserve naming and shaming, and I fear we’re moving into inciting a mob, instead.

  41. more anon than usual*

    Newly-minted ED of a nonprofit shifting from all-volunteer to small staff here (and trying to do so now, of all times!).

    I need a moment to be thoroughly unprofessional and say that I wan to kick these people in the ‘nads.

    That’s all. Bye.

  42. Is this me?*

    My nonprofit actually asked me and my coworkers to do this. I’m hoping I’ll still be asked back even though I said no. Fraud, plus taking away insurance and my paycheck is too much to ask.

  43. Kathy*

    On a weekly conference call this morning the manager of our union’s joint board advised the union staff were going on furlough as of 3/27/2020 – she said that being a union they were precluded from getting @ least one type of SBA loan. Still they are being asked to come in 1-2 days weekly to process mail & bills & otherwise work remotely (benefits would still be retained). I work for a benefit fund office that has ample $ that is associated with the union; we’ve been asked to do similar work (this has caused me to use gas waiting 1 hour in line @ bank’s drive-up to do weekly deposit, return phone calls using my personal cell phone, etc. – none of which am getting renumeration for – in addition, schlepping needed paperwork back & forth is causing stress and pain in my lower back). Today (if it hasn’t happened already) she & their 2nd in command are supposed to be contacting our administrative office to see if they plan to do likewise regarding myself (age 58) & another person (age 72) – & our work is considered essential. Wondering about ethics/legality of this action – in SE PA.

  44. pureoaknut*

    I work for a dentist and of course, we are all laid off. We have been directed by the government NOT to work and only work if there is a genuine dental emergency. Our licensing board has also told us that we CANNOT refuse to work if the dentist calls us in to help with the emergency. I get that. I’m actually ok with it as well. However, the dentist has already told us that they will not pay us for this time because it will mess with our unemployment benefits and therefore, they will give us a *wink* gift later. I am not certain what that would be, perhaps a gift card for something to use later when life is more or less back to normal. But this doesn’t incline me to go in anymore, and quite frankly, the risk to health is tricky. I suspect full hazmat gear is going to be needed when we go back. Recently only a few dental offices will be designated as emergency service clinics and our bosses would have to apply for this designation. But I don’t think they are going to do that.

  45. Berl Schwartz*

    I might have agreed with you once upon a time. But I’m a small-business owner. From what I have seen and heard, it could be months before my company gets a thing under the Payroll Protection Act. Payroll is my biggest expense. I’m literally staring at the very real possibility of seeing 20 years of hard work go down the drain in the next couple of months. Moreover, my business (a weekly newspaper) would be a real loss to our community if it goes under.
    In light of the above, I think I’d be justified in laying myself off and working voluntarily and asking my employees if they’d join me.
    Is this how unemployment compensation is intended to work? In normal times, of course not. But given the financial catastrophe we are facing, I
    think saving my company — and hence saving jobs in the long run — is sensible and ethical. And hopefully legal.

Comments are closed.