The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) defines employment very broadly—"to suffer or permit to work." But the U.S. Supreme Court has made it clear that the FLSA was not intended "to stamp all persons as employees who without any express or implied compensation agreement might work for their own advantage on the premises of another."
In administering the FLSA, the U.S. Department of Labor follows this judicial guidance in the case of individuals serving as unpaid volunteers in various community services. Individuals who volunteer or donate their services (usually on a part-time basis) for public service, religious, or humanitarian objectives and not as employees—and do so without contemplation of pay—are not considered employees of the religious, charitable or similar non-profit organizations that receive their service.
For example, members of civic organizations may help out in a sheltered workshop; men's or women's organizations may send members or students into hospitals or nursing homes to provide certain personal services for the sick or elderly; parents may assist in a school library or cafeteria as a public duty to maintain effective services for their children or may volunteer to drive a school bus to carry a football team or school band on a trip.
Similarly, an individual may volunteer to perform tasks such as driving vehicles or folding bandages for the Red Cross; working with disabled children or disadvantaged youth; helping in youth programs as camp counselors, scoutmasters, or den mothers; providing child care assistance for needy working mothers; soliciting contributions or participating in benefit programs for such organizations; and volunteering other services needed to carry out their charitable, educational, or religious programs.
Under the FLSA, employees may not volunteer services to for-profit private sector employers. On the other hand, in the vast majority of circumstances, individuals can volunteer services to public sector employers. When Congress amended the FLSA in 1985 it made clear that people are allowed to volunteer their services to public agencies and their community with but one exception—public sector employers may not allow their employees to volunteer, without compensation, additional time to do the same work for which they are employed. There is no prohibition on anyone employed in the private sector volunteering in any capacity or line of work in the public sector.