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Workers Compensation Laws and Public Health Volunteers

posted on Thu, Jul 10 2014 9:23 am by Brian Hall and Nkechi Nwaogu

What amount of workers’ compensation does a nurse volunteering at a state-run health clinic receive if she accidentally pricks herself with a used needle? Surprisingly, in a majority of states, the answer is none.

Injuries and deaths of employees in the workplace are covered by workers’ compensation laws in each state. These laws do not automatically protect unpaid volunteers because they are typically not deemed to be employees of their host entities. However, states may choose to broaden the definition of “employee” to include certain volunteers for the purpose of extending workers’ compensation coverage to those volunteers. Each state determines whether volunteers working for local or state agencies are deemed to be employees and are therefore eligible for workers’ compensation coverage.

A recent survey of workers’ compensation laws in 50 states and the District of Columbia revealed how they vary in the level of protections for public health volunteers.

Only nine states mandate workers’ compensation coverage for volunteers. The volunteers in these states are treated as employees of the state government, and are required to be covered. Four of these states (Hawaii, Maryland, South Dakota, Washington) restrict the coverage available to volunteers, primarily by only covering medical costs.

Seven states and D.C. allow either state or local governments to decide whether volunteers are eligible for workers’ compensation coverage. Most of these states allow agencies, local governments, and other political subdivisions to determine if volunteers are eligible, while Kansas and Wisconsin allow employers to determine if they will offer coverage to volunteers.

Two states, Oregon and Washington, have laws that combine the above approaches by either requiring coverage or making it discretionary. Oregon allows local governments to determine if they will offer coverage to volunteers, but volunteers working for a non-profit, charitable, or relief organization are not eligible for workers’ compensation coverage. While Washington does require volunteers working for the state government to be covered, local governments can elect to offer coverage but are not required to do so.

Workers’ compensation coverage is an important consideration for individuals volunteering to improve a state’s public health. State laws vary in their level of coverage for public health volunteers, but a better understanding of these laws will help policy makers explore new and innovative ways to protect public health volunteers. 

This guest post developed by Brian Hall, J.D. Candidate ‘13, and Nkechi Nwaogu, J.D. Candidate ’13, at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law, with oversight by Kerri Lowrey, J.D., M.P.H., Deputy Director at the Network for Public Health Law — Eastern Region.

The Network for Public Health Law provides information and technical assistance on issues related to public health. The legal information and assistance provided in this document does not constitute legal advice or legal representation. For legal advice, readers should consult a lawyer in their state. This blog post does not represent the views of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

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