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The Almighty Buck

Will Legalities Choke Off Online Volunteerism? 140

friartux writes: "Adrenaline Vault reports on a clash between volunteers and AOL. The story details how volunteers who receive perks may make the company subject to minimum wage laws. So how might this affect open source projects, where a company offers hardware in exchange for drivers?" It's quite a long article, and the AOL-vs.-volunteers angle is only one aspect of the story, as friartux points out. Perhaps relevant to many Slashdot readers is that scrutiny of payment-in-kind could affect online gaming participants who trade their time and skill for free access to servers and other resources.
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Will Legalities Choke Off Online Volunteerism?

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  • I'd rather earn half that, by honest free trade, than ten times as much as a law-backed parasite of an unwilling employer.
  • Well, Sorry if I came off as a troll.

    Anyway, a price floor will create inefficiencies, iff it is above the current market price for a good. Workers are a market that is not excempt from this rule. If indeed min wage did not have much effect in the UK, it is most likely because not many people were paying below that rate to start with.

    My point is that no one will work at a job they are unhappy with, if they can find a better job that pays more. (Pay may not always be money, but even something as intangible as personal satisfaction.) Efficient Market Theory rules in this case, workers are valued at what they are actually worth.

    I don't like the government telling me that I can't work for less than $5.15 per hour, even if I want to. Thats BS.
    -----------------------------
  • you act like we should give a shit about the welfare cases... anyone I know who isn't that well off has managed to do fine by hard work without resorting to handouts. my parents fall into this same category. Considering that welfare benefits can net you more money than a minimum wage job can, I fail to see why you think eliminating minimum pay rates would somehow make employment look more attractive. I'd bet that you'd just end up with more useless bottomdwellers on the dole.
  • almost every organization that is a volunteer organization offers some sort of perks

    Name one other publicly traded volunteer organization? I didn't know that nonprofit organizations (AOL???) could issue shares like that.

    There's no reason to confuse AOL with, oh, the (often) pro-bono corps of software engineers that's been developing the GNU/Linux vision of the world.

  • Moderation and metamoderation! come on taco how about seling some of thoses shares of stock? Open source your cash!!!

    ________

  • From the article: "Due to changes in the industry regarding volunteers, effective Sept. 30, 2000, OSI will no longer provide free player accounts or other added value to members of all [Ultima Online] Volunteer Programs." So, if I'm reading this correctly, OSI (in this case) isn't actually terminating the Volunteer Programs, but just eliminating any of the perks/compensation that go along with it. Does that actually shield them from lawsuits? Or does it change the claim from "You aren't paying me minimum wage for my work!" to "You aren't paying me at all for my work!"? The basis of the AOL lawsuit is that the "Communist Leaders" have some real authority. They have the ability to enforce the TOC, to boot people, and to terminate connections and/or accounts. Those are responsibilities that, generally speaking, most people would think employees of AOL only should have. (Hypothetical: A CL is a warez f13n0. He terminates all those who go into his room and aren't 'k-rad 31337.) Other online communities that have those sorts of leaders don't give the 'volunteers' the same sort of authority. Perks and responsibilities, sure. Authority? Not really. Either way, legal necessity or not, these companies are shooting themselves in the foot PR-wise. It's a lose-lose situation. No kidding.
    "And they said onto the Lord.. How the hell did you do THAT?!"
  • it's quite apparent that AOL was exploiting people who would do anything for free hours.

    It was a voluntary agreement between AOL and consenting adults. Participants were free to terminate the arrangement at any time. Many of them did.

    Are you saying that the minimum wage should be done away with?

    Absolutely! Minimum wage laws cause unemployment, poverty and welfare dependence among the least-skilled workers.

    If the minimum wage is set at, say, $5/hr, only those who have skills worth that much can get jobs. The rest - the ones at the very bottom - are left SOL, with no chance whatsoever of getting a job so they can learn some skills and better their situation.

    Proponents of minimum wage laws like to talk as if they are helping people, but in reality they hurt the poorest in our society the most.

    In fact, labor unions have been the driving force behind minimum wage increases in the U.S. Don't you find this a little suspicious? When was the last time you heard of a union member making anywhere near minimum wage?



    --
  • Re:Of course, that assumes that access to AOL has value.

    Making that case in court will, indeed be an uphill battle.
    lol

  • The point of the minimum wage law is to prevent people being not able to earn enough money to live.

    But the effect of the minimum wage law is to prevent immigrants, teenagers, and poor people trying to escape welfare from getting established in the labor market.

    unformed wrote: almost every organization that is a volunteer organization offers some sort of perks, and much of it should be expected...

    The problem is that AOL is not a volunteer orgranization, and isn't organized as one in the eyes of the tax authorities. It's a for-profit corporation, and therefore, people doing work for it are generally either employees or contractors. On the legalities, I think AOL will get hammered, even though it doesn't deserve to be.

    Perhaps AOL could get together with some educational institution and make its volunteer positions "internships", so it doesn't have to pay for them?

  • This particular little blurb is in no short supply on the web, but it also can be found here [effect.net.au]

    July 18 - I just tried to connect to America Online. I've heard it is the best online service I can get. They even included a free disk! I'd better hold onto it incase they don't ever send me anther one! I can't connect. I don't know what is wrong.

    July 19 - Some guy at the tech support center says my computer needs a modem. I don't see why. He's just trying to cheat me. How dumb does he think I am?

    July 22 - I bought the modem. I couldn't figure out where it goes. It wouldn't fit in the monitor or the printer. I'm confused.

    July 23 - I finally got the modem in and hooked up. that nine year old next door did it for me. But it still don't work. I can't get online.

    July 25 - That nine year old kid next door hooked me up to America Online for me. He's so smart. I told the kid he was a prodigy. But he says that's just another service. What a modest kid. He's so smart and he does these services for people. Anyway he's smarter then the jerks who sold me the modem. They didn't even tell me about communications software. Bet they didn't know. And why do they put two telephone jack holes in the back of a modem when you only need one? And why do they have one labeled phone when you are not suppose to hook it to the phone jack on the wall? I thought the dial tone sounded funny! Boy, are modem makers dumb! But the kid figured it out by the sound.

    July 26 - What's the internet? I thought I was on America Online. Not this internet thing. I'm confused.

    July 27 - The nine year old kid next door showed me how to use this America Online stuff. I told him he must be a genius. He says that he is compared to me. Maybe he's not so modest after all.

    July 28 - I tried to use chat today. I tried to talk into my computer but nothing happened. maybe I need to buy a microphone.

    July 29 - I found this thing called usenet. I got out of it because I'm connected to America Online not usenet.

    July 30 - These people in this usenet thing keep using capital letters. How do they do that? I never figured out how to type capital letters. Maybe they have a different type of keyboard.

    JULY 31 - I CALLED THE COMPUTER MAKER I BOUGHT IT FROM TO COMPLAIN ABOUT NOT HAVING A CAPITOL LETTER KEY. THE TECH SUPPORT GUY SAID IT WAS THIS CAPS LOCK KEY. WHY DIDN'T THEY SPELL IT OUT? I TOLD HIM I GOT A CHEAP KEYBOARD AND WANTED A BETTER ONE. AND ONE OF MY SHIFT KEYS ISNT THE SAME SIZE AS THE OTHER. HE SAID THATS A STANDARD. I TOLD HIM I DIDN'T WANT A STANDARD KEYBOARD BUT ANOTHER BRAND. I MUST HAVE HAD AN IMPORTANT COMPLAINT BECAUSE I HEARD HIM TELL THE OTHER SUPPORT GUYS TO LISTEN IN ON OUR CONVERSATION.

    AUGUST 1 - I FOUND THIS THING CALLED THE USENET ORACLE. IT SAYS THAT IT CAN ANSWER ANY QUESTIONS I ASK IT. I SENT IT 44 SEPARATE QUESTIONS ABOUT THE INTERNET. I HOPE IT RESPONDS SOON.

    AUGUST 2 - I FOUND A GROUP CALLED REC.HUMOR. I DECIDED TO POST THIS JOKE ABOUT THE CHICKEN THAT CROSSED THE ROAD. TO GET TO THE OTHER SIDE! HA! HA! I WASNT SURE I POSTED IT RIGHT SO I POSTED IT 56 MORE TIMES.

    AUGUST 3 - I KEEP HEARING ABOUT THE WORLD WIDE WEB. I DON'T NOW SPIDERS GREW THAT LARGE.

    AUGUST 4 - THE ORACLE RESPONDED TO MY QUESTIONS TODAY. GEEZ IT WAS RUDE. I WAS SO ANGRY THAT I POSTED AN ANGRY MESSAGE ABOUT IT TO REC.HUMOR.ORACLE. I WASNT SURE IF I POSTED RIGHT SO I POSTED IT 22 MORE TIMES.

    AUGUST 5 - SOMEONE TOLD ME TO READ THE FAQ. GEEZ THEY DIDN'T HAVE TO USE PROFANITY.

    AUGUST 6 - SOMEONE ELSE TOLD ME TO STOP SHOUTING IN ALL MY MESSAGES. WHAT A STUPID JERK. IM NOT SHOUTING! IM NOT EVEN TALKING! JUST TYPING! HOW CAN THEY LET THESE RUDE JERKS GO ON THE INTERNET?

    August 7 - Why have a Caps Lock key if you're not suppose to use it? Its probably an extra feature that costs more money.

    August 8 - I just read this post called make money fast. I'm so exited. I'm going to make lots of money. I followed his instructions and posted it to every newsgroup I could find.

    August 9 - I just made my signature file. Its only 6 pages long. I will have to work on it some more.

    August 10 - I just looked at a group called alt.aol.sucks. I read a few posts and I really believe that aol should be wiped off the face of the earth. I wonder what an aol is.

    August 11 - I was asking where to find some information about something. Some guy told me to check out ftp.netcom.com. I've looked and looked but I can't find that group.

    August 12 - I sent a post to every usenet group on the Internet asking where the ftp.netcom.com is. hopefully someone will help. I can't ask the kid next door. His parents said that when he comes back from my house he's laughing so hard he can't eat or sleep or do his homework. So they wont let him come over anymore. I do have a great sense of humor. I don't know why the rec.humor group didn't like my chicken joke. Maybe they only like dirty stuff. Some people sent me posts about my 56 posts of the joke and they used bad words.

    August 13 - I sent another post to every usenet group on the Internet asking where the ftp.netcom.com is. I had forgot yesterday to include my new signature file which is only 8 pages long. I know everyone will want to read my favorite poem so I included it. I'm also going to add that short story I like.

    August 14 - Some guy suspended my account because of what I was doing. I told him I don't have an account at his bank. He's so dumb.

  • One more note: this is a class action suit brought for the volenteers. I smell a team of lawyers in bad suits looking to score easy
    money.


    Maybe, or maybe not. It just may be a bunch of ex-AOLers who've suffered some perceived wrong by the company and are looking for a little payback. Unfortunately, the U.S. legal system lends itself to vengeance. The Brits have the right idea (one of their few) in having a 'loser pays' system.
  • Vote Libertarian [lp.org] if you want to see this sort of shit eliminated.

    Neither the major political parties, nor the number four party (Reform) are interested in fixing this.

    -
  • Yes.. but it's a bit more abstract than that.

    What can (and does) happen are situations like this:
    An employer states that you are on 'contract' (or rather, you both 'agree' to this) and he doesn't have to actually pay you a minimum hourly wage. Part of your 'contract' is that you attend from 9-5.
    The courts see this as 'employment' regardless of how it's packaged, and he is required to pay the equivalent of minimum wage.

    I agree that hardware in exchagne for some code is not wrong.. however, labor law indicates that, if you are performing a service, or giving something of value to the company, they must pay you fairly for it. This means minimum wage.
  • They VOLUNTEERED!
    They were told 'you can do this if you like, and in exchange, we will give you your account for free'.

    Yes, under minimum wage laws, they could be considered 'employees'.. but there must be an ounce of sanity here.

    20 hours in a factory is a heck of a lot different than 20 hours on aol..
  • As per guidelines as to what constitutes 'employment', the fact that an employer and employee (regardless of the terms they use, ie: contractor) agree on a lesser wage does not exempt the employer from his legal obligation to pay minimum wage.

    If you do work and get free hardware, that is a taxable benefit, or income, however you want to slice it. Generally, *anything* of value given in exchange for work (or anything else) is income, unless specifically exempt.(Lotteries.. oh wait.. that's only exempt in Canada)

  • by Dave Rickey ( 229333 ) on Sunday September 03, 2000 @05:01PM (#807913)
    I'm the same Dave Rickey that was quoted in the article. I used to be the Asst. Head Gamemaster (paid in-game customer support) for EverQuest. I've been playing these games for basicly forever, and I now work for a different company (Mythic Entertainment) developing them. I've been playing these games about as long as they've been around.

    I want to throw some numbers at you, so you can see how bad this is. It takes about 2000 manhours a month, *minimum*, to support a 1500 peak population game server for Customer Service (that is barely enough to keep complaints of poor service to a dull roar). Most of the issues that come up are minor ones, requiring few special "powers" in the game context, nothing you can't entrust to someone you have no real hold over (since you don't pay them, you can't really fire them). A paid CS rep costs about $15/hour between wages and overhead. 2000 * $15 = $30,000. Revenues from subscriptions for a server that will peak at 1500 players? About $45K. Before you go "Aha!", remember what else has to be paid for out of that, bandwidth and servers and miscellaneous overhead. By the time you figure it out, such a server would actually be *losing* $5-15K every month.

    Obviously, nobody is going to operate a game that is losing money. So what is going to have to happen is that CS will suffer. And the number one complaint from players of OLRPG's right now is that CS *sucks*. Always has been.

    But it's more than that. This opens up a whole can of worms that the games industry *really* doesn't want to go near. For example, iD software released Quake 3 Arena with minimal included gameplay, essentially Deathmatch only, with the expectation that more sophisticated gameplay would be developed by the fans, volunteering their time to finish iD's game. Are those third-party authors now entitled to royalties from iD?

    The "Volunteer" programs certainly didn't start out with the intent of getting free labor. They got started because their were roles the community needed filled, that could *not* be cost-effectively filled by paid personel, so people literally *begged* for the tools to fill those roles themselves. Giving them free accounts was just a "perk", it was never intended as compensation.

    They still can't be cost-effectively filled by paid personnel. If profit-making enterprises can't use this volunteer labor, then these tasks simply aren't going to get done, and the communities will suffer as a result.

    And that's an important distinction. These people are not volunteering to provide the game companies with free labor, they are volunteering to assist their community, which happens to center around a game. These communities can and do have an existence above and beyond the games they are based on. They can and have picked up in their entirety and change games. They can and do survive the the complete dissolution of their games.

    You can volunteer to serve your community without pay, even though your community is not a charitable organization. It's legal for companies to adopt a mile or two of highway and have their employees out there picking up trash on their own time (it's even legal for them to make raises and promotions dependant on participation in this "volunteer" program). The armed forces pay *far* less than minimum wage to junior enlisted personnel. I'm not sure that it's possible to have the game communities given the same legal recognition that geographical ones have. But I certainly do believe they should have it.

    This is far more complicated than "Greedy Corporation Exploiting Free Labor", no matter what lawyers trying to shake money out of deep pockets may say. Nobody required these people to perform a service for the community, and if the companies benefitted it was only as a side effect.

    --Dave Rickey

  • Hello, sweatshops.

    Nah... the monopolies will bring the costs down, just like in the 1800's.
    <<< CmdrTHAC0 >>>

  • So, does this mean that the /. moterators will have to get paid ??

    on a lighter note. I think this is BS and won't fly. People these days sue for the STUPIEST things. Hmmmm, no Crunching Peanut butter in jail, sue `em!


    until (succeed) try { again(); }

  • Bush ?

    "Read my lips, no new taxes."

    His dad lied, he lied.

  • If a company supplies me some nice shiny hardware for a device driver i wrote, that may be better than minimum wage depending on how good i am at coding. Now for AOL (and i am unsure as to what benefits they were giving) the benefits probably were not minimum wage. Now i am unsure about the legality of giving hardware instead of money, but i wouldn't mind getting a nice new computer. In any case, in jobs where you get tips minimum wage will be lower, perhaps something like that could be arranged so people who decide to work for free can gain benefits but still not be paid. Of course, that could be abused but does anyone have a better idea? Oh well.

    -Elendale (no way this will get FP)

  • Weren't minimum wage laws put into effect to protect workers who were recieving unfair pay? It seems to me that this is none of the government's business. The volunteers are getting paid, in their own way, and they don't have a problem with it. Why is this even an issue?
  • by benenglish ( 107150 ) on Sunday September 03, 2000 @06:58AM (#807919)
    Surely if the employee has no contract of employment, he/she isn't considered an "employee" in legal terms

    No.

    The term "employee" is defined various ways by various agencies, both state and federal, in the U.S. The existence of a written contract is just one factor in determining whether someone is an employee. There are generally 20 common law factors that are used to determine the employee status of a person. It absolutely does not matter if either or both the parties involved say they are or are not in an employee-employer relationship. The actual facts and circumstances of the situation determine if an employement situation exists.

    For a short (perhaps too short) look at the way the Social Security Administration codifies these factors, look here. [ssa.gov]

    For a readable, slightly expanded re-statement of the factors, look here. [wsu.edu]

    And for more than you ever wanted to know, look here. [findlaw.com]

  • by Cowardly Anonym ( 30327 ) on Sunday September 03, 2000 @06:59AM (#807920)

    (IANAL) From a regulatory perspective, this could get hairy. Let's imagine for a moment that a US-based online gaming company decides to start paying its "volunteers" the minimum wage. What does this mean for the volunteers who are not US citizens or residents?

    • Would they need to get green cards to be allowed to "work" for the gaming company? Their employer is in the US, but they are not, and likely will never be.
    • To be permitted to pay non-US volunteers, would the gaming company first have to prove that that there was a shortage of US volunteers? If so, how could they possibly prove this?
    • Would non-US volunteers have to pay taxes to the US government? The complexity of the US tax forms is legendary...just the mere threat of having to fill them out each year would probably be a sufficient deterrent to non-US volunteers. :)

    Next, let's flip the above scenario. What would happen if a non-US-based online gaming company were using a few US volunteers? What sort of red tape would this mean for them?

    Finally, how could the gaming company ever really know where their volunteers were based, anyway? It could be possible for a non-US volunteer, for example, to obfuscate his geographical location in such a way as to appear to be working from inside the US.

    Sounds like a potential goldmine for the lawyers...

  • I can see the lawsuits now, with Plaintiffs A, B, and C each separately saying their driver is superior, and asking a court to rule on the quality of computer software. Face it, in the U.S., nothing insulates you from being sued. Oh, you may 'prevail' in the end, but probably at a cost of far more than that of just settling. Tort reform is sorely needed.
  • How do these legalities work for independent contractors? I mean, if you are essentially operating as a company, do you have to be paid minimum wage if you choose not too?

    Also, what about taxes? I mean if you do a bunch of work and get a bunch of free hardware out of it, is that income (or more to the point, taxable income)?

    ---

  • As a volunteer moderator (and meta-moderator) for Slashdot, I help actively contribute to this online community. Andover owes me, big-time.

    I read /. for, probably, an hour daily, for the past couple years... oh, heck, just give me $50,000 and stock options and we'll call it even.

  • Minimum wage laws are not for people who are unsatisfied with $3.00 an hour. They are there so that everyone gets at least $5.15 an hour. This isn't a law where charges can be dropped, because I believe it is the government that would handle the charge.
  • Actually going in I did not realise what AOL was, naive of me but true. I was not someone who "sought out" a position with America Online, I was recruited with the line of, nobody is there to watch the children they are alone easy prey for the pedophiles, nor was a I called a "volunteer" when I started.

    I was listed and hired as Remote Staff and Compensated with an Overhead account. I had time cards, peer reviews, 300 plus pages of policies and procedures, over a month of training, etc. I could be written up for being 30 seconds late for a shift and fired if I missed my shifts. If I voiced my opinion I could be fired, terminated, and labeled a security risk for voicing my opinion.

    Thats volunteering?

    Do not scream and yell at me because I was ignorant of the laws. Scream and yell at the corporation who KNOWINGLY BROKE THEM and used people like myself to get rich and then would throw them aside when they got what they wanted. With no recourse, no possibility of fairness.

    I am neither vindictive nor spiteful, I personally gain very little financially with this suit, my goals are simply to force America Online to pay everyone that WORKS for them. And it is a REAL goal and one that will be made true.

    Let me throw a few comments at you that you answer hmm?

    How do you fire a volunteer? Aol does it constantly.

    How do you tell someone they are a member of a family/community, then terminate them and tell their "family" they can not speak with them?

    Why is it the victims fault here and not the person who knowingly broke the law?

    How on earth do you justify a corporation using intimidation and fear to force people to toe the line? When they are NOT paid?

    How do you justify the actions of a corporation breaking federal CHILD labor laws by having children as young as 10, YES 10 years old, hosting chats where they are exposed to all sorts of vile language?

    I volunteered for BSA, the PTA, and Just Say No, don't speak to me about volunteer spirit, speak to me about the law, because that is what my fight is based upon, that and whats morally right.

    Kelly Hallissey www.observers.net
  • For a Q&D look at the complexities of employee status, consider this: a pastor retained by a church is an employee for income tax purposes but self-employed for FICA/Medicare tax purposes. (Additionally, honoraria received for weddings, baptisms, funerals, and the like are considered Schedule C self-employment income.)

    IANAL, YMMV, etc., etc.

    But, IAAOM (ordained minister) and have filed substantial documentation supporting my 1040 and schedules C & SE every year I was active in ministry.

    --

  • by laborit ( 90558 ) on Sunday September 03, 2000 @06:49PM (#807927) Homepage
    How on earth do you justify a corporation using intimidation and fear to force people to toe the line? When they are NOT paid?

    If you weren't being paid or otherwise compensated, how did they intimidate you?

    I'm reminded of the Stanford Prison Experiment...

    - Michael Cohn
  • We were given special accounts, they were called overhead, the intimidation was that if you disobeyed their mindset, you were banished from the service and thus cut off from your friends, family etc. Keep in mind this is pre AIM/cable/dsl and MANY areas did not have ISPs.
  • The volinteers themselfs should sign off saying they are NOT part of this (They need to send out letters asking if they want to be represented).

    If there are a core group of volinteers who accually want this I need to ask.. what part of volinteer do you not understand?

    If you want to get paid a living wage.. get a job.

    The key here is people are given a $10 kickback for the work they do..
    But.. like Slashdot moderators... Why? Why moderate? Why accept the position...
    Prestege? No.. (Hay SlashStaff could you put a note up on the user page saying "This is a moderator" so people can have bragging rights?)
    How about.... The Letter... that stuff is over with and moderators were never included...
    Why then?
    Well for doing something... to help Slashdot.. to be a part of the community in a very real way.
    No bragging rights... just a sense of.. hay were doing something cool...
    And there is that small twing of power but Taco cuts the power back a bit.. to prevent abuse..

    Anyway... the whole idea is to do it becouse you WANT to... not becouse AoL pays $10... not for work... It's nice a nice thing to do...
    If you want money... get a job....
  • OK then: So what if I work in community theatre? If I give a really shitty audition i wont be "hired". If I perform badly during rehersals I will be "fired". I am told to work specific hours like "showtimes" and "rehersals" else I will be "fired". And I recieve perks like "pizza" and "beer".

    Dont get me wrong, I hate AOL as much as the next guy, but this is absurd. People volunteer because they want to...not because they want to get free internet access.
  • It may not be that big a deal if the online organizations stop giving out freebies to their volunteers. In my experience, these people do it for either love of the subject area or because they can be fascist demi-gods in their own little patch of the universe. Many people who get elected to public office take a large hit to their income for the privilege of serving. I suspect that the same motivations that snag them will also continue to supply volunteers. (Now, the big question becomes: is that enough to placate the bureaucrats? Stay tuned.)
  • But the effect of the minimum wage law is to prevent immigrants, teenagers, and poor people trying to escape welfare from getting established in the labor market.

    What are you talking about? So you think if companies weren't forced to pay people $5.25 an hour they'd pay more.
    Bwahahahahahahahahahahahahah.

    If you believe that I have a bridge in Brooklyn for sale, real cheap too.

    PS: Have you ever heard of a sweat shop? That's what happens when there's no minimum wage law. Slavery.


    (-1 Troll)
  • If you still think that there should be a minimum wage law, then why doesn't it apply to volunteerism? What's the difference between being willing to work for $2 and being willing to work for $0 and some perks ?

    A big reason is that the standards are different. No sane person depends on volenteer work to earn a Living, they either have a real job, or don't need one.

    In a wage job, you show up and obey the employer's rules because you have to make the rent and buy food with your paycheck. In a volenteer job, if you don't like the rules or the working conditions, you just leave. You will not suffer any significant consequences. Don't want to work 10 hours a day? Then don't. Regular job: Don't want to work 10 hours a day? Do it anyway because the rent doesn't pay itself.

    There's also the fact that volenteers are working on something that they feel is important and get to pick and choose what they will do. When working for wages, you do what your employer feels is important, and do everything he/she says beczause the alternative is a nice cardboard box somewhere.

    I can just about guarentee that if minimum wage were abolished today, nearly everyone now earning minimum wage would join the ranks of the working destitute tomorrow (they're already working poor based on any reasonable poverty standard).

  • if you are essentially operating as a company, do you
    have to be paid minimum wage if you choose not too?


    The answer is no. As an independent who frequently works on fixed-price contracts, I've many times been compensated below minimum (mainly when I've been trying to get a foot in the door with a new client). The trick is, the IRS has some strict tests that you have to pass in order to be considered an independent contractor, and they go out of their way to find that you're actually a quasi-employee. They get lots of back taxes and penalties against your 'employer' that way. Consequently, many employers are gun-shy about trying to have some be an independent contractor.

    I mean if you do a bunch of work and get a bunch of free hardware out of it, is that income (or
    more to the point, taxable income)?


    Are you kidding? The IRS isn't going to let that slip by. Of course, if the company doesn't turn in a 1099 there's no way for the IRS to know. But, you'll run right out and report it, right? :-)
  • Try reading 300-500 board messages a day, file upwards of 20 TOS reports, and answer numerous emails in less than 4 hours and you can begin to see the problem. In addition, the area that I worked in pretty much required a 20 hour a week committment, with no more than the promise of a free account and a lot of hate mail.

    Sounds like they forgot who was doing who the favor! Since you weren't dependant on them for your living, you were free to leave at any time with no significant consequences. The proper response to their policy changes was "I have x hours a month I am willing to devote to this, and I will do what I can in that time IF I FEEL LIKE IT." What were they going to do, FIRE you?

    What you witnessed was a simple embodiment of the fact that greedy and ungreatful corperations don't deserve charity.

  • Other companies are running scared at the suit against AOL. Check out this article on Origin cancelling its Ultima Online volunteers' free accounts and making them take a mandatory 3 month break after 1 year of work. (The point at which an employee is considered full-time.)

    http://www.avault.com/articles/getarticle.asp?na me=smurfs
  • Regarding your words:"essentially mandating" that you do this or that . .
    This is where you went wrong.
    The moment you feel like you're under some kind of obligation is when you cut back on you walk away. This was your mistake, not AOLs.

    While I would agree that Steve case will do anything for money, I would also say that most AOL newbies will do anything for free service.

    "help! help! I'm being repressed!" cries the AOLers logged on for free.

  • This boils down to the fact that this was a agreement made with AOL *of your own free will*, and as a consenting adult.

    So you made a bad choice, and it wasn't quite what you thought it would be. In exercising your option to end the arrangement, you made a second decision *of your own free will*.

    Now your class action lawsuit threatens to establish precedent which will effectively take away the ability of all current and future online volunteers (AOL or otherwise) to *make their own decisions for themselves*.

    It really burns me up when a small group appoints themselves saviors and decides to make decisions on behalf of other people - as if the other people were 'too stupid' to know what's best for themselves.

    --
  • As said before, MW creates economic inefficiency.

    Indeed it does. To put a human face on that... minimum wage laws cause poverty, unemployment, welfare dependence and some measure of inflation - by creating an artificial barrier to entry into the workforce for those with the least skills.

    To put it another way, minimum wage laws make the truly poor even poorer.



    --
  • by ptbrown ( 79745 ) on Sunday September 03, 2000 @07:35PM (#807940)
    The key point in the AOL suit is that AOL's reliance on volunteers was essentially a substitute for hiring paid employees. The lawyers are taking advantage of the volunteers being given free subscriptions to AOL to say that they were, in fact, employees who were being paid for their services.

    Volunteers for the Open Directory project are not being paid in any way. What would they be paid with, anyway? ODP is a non-profit entity. And that's what makes the AOL case a completely seperate matter from real volunteerism. AOL's community leaders were working for a corporate entitity with a profit motive. ODP is non-profit. FSF is non-profit. LDP is non-profit. Gutenberg is non-profit. Volunteers for these organizations are working out of their own charity with no expectation of compensation. What AOL was doing was enticing "volunteers" with the prospect of free service. And if they stopped "volunteering" they'd have to start paying their $21.95/month. I'd pay the same to access dmoz.org whether I volunteered there or not. (That is, US$0.)

    So while this may be a concern for outfits like RedHat or Andover, it's a non-issue for non-profits and real volunteers.
  • The Agreement was that I was hired as remote staff, an employee that was compensated with an overhead account that had a value of hundreds of dollars a month which AOL then removed.

    I find it highly amusing that those screaming about this have absolutely no clue as to what I was hired as. I was NOT a volunteer when hired, AOL called me a volunteer when MANY guides questioned the legality of the situation and when told they would have to pay for access threatened to strike and were fired and terminated for it.

    Perhaps an education of the facts involving those of us who filed the suit is in order? Unless you know the details of our agreement with AOL, you can not logically argue this topic.

    Kelly Hallissey www.observers.net
  • MUDs are hobby... if it were making money it would be required to get a busness liccens etc as a hobby corp...
    Hobbys end up getting the shaft when we start granting specal privilages to nonprofs..

    Thats the really sad part too... people think... NonProff or Proff.. They ignore the tween... the hobby... with non of the benifits of a proffit or nonproffit hobbys allways get burnt..

    Yes if AoL is required to pay volinteers... a nonproffit remains exemnt... a MUD who is a hobby.. must pay for "services rendered" like any other private entity...

    Volinteering for a proffit entity is nothing new.
    In some industrys it is the way you get in the door...
    You volinteer and when they come to depend on you.. you get hired... becouse as a volinteer you can walk out anytime you like..
    And if a volinteer proves himself vital.. and you don't pay him... someone else will....

    This happends most usually in industrys where work is plentyful.. workers are hard to come by... but money to pay thies people is even more rare...

    So it balences out... they fill the void with volinteers... as things improve they come to rely on the best workers so when money is available they become employees.

    Then there is just the pure community factor...
    Doing things like moderating forums is traditionally a volinteer job. AoL dosn't need moderators... they could just as easly dump the whole deal...
    Not that I would mind... AoL could just dump it's own internal forums in favor of Usenet and let usenet volinteers do the work...
  • Non proffs do have employees and proffs do have volinteers..

    Basicly a volunteer is someone who basicly just says "I'll help". You are allowed to reject anyones help and they are allowed to say whatever they feel about it.

    An employee is someone who is basicly someone who offers the service of his labor in trade for payment.

    The legal distictions are few... they are mostly morally and socally defined.

    The basic idea is you can't hire or fire a volinteer. The need for a paycheck binds an employee to your service but a volinteer has no such limitations.

    A volinteer may walk away when ever he becomes disintrested. An employee may not.

    Managers get to play god over employees...
    Do even a hint of disrespect and the volinteer says something really nasty picks up and walks away.

    Legally the diffrence.. right now.. is the volinteers don't get paid...
    Giving something in return.. becouse we want to... not as "terms of work" is normal...
    AoL can at any time say "We aren't paying $10 to anyone anymore" becouse thies are volinteers.
  • The key point in the AOL suit is that AOL's reliance on volunteers was essentially a substitute for hiring paid employees.

    Here is a more detailed list of pertinent criteria [observers.net] from the plaintiffs' site. If you look at it, you'll see that Open Source projects match all 4 of the listed criteria.

    I can see how this could derail many open source projects which have a company's backing., especially when the company employs one or more of the project leaders, as is the case with GNOME, MySQL, PHP, Abiword and dozens of others.

    So while this may be a concern for outfits like RedHat or Andover, it's a non-issue for non-profits and real volunteers.

    Should it matter if someone else wants to volunteer for a profit-making entity? Should there even be such a distinction?

    I'm reminded of the Cluetrain Manifesto [cluetrain.com], which urges companies to get closer to their customers, understand them, and get involved with them. One way a company can do this is by forming a community around its product, which some enthusiastic users might volunteer to be involved with (just like we are with Slashdot).

    The Cluetrain Manifesto tells us to 'tear down the walls'. I think that's a damn fine idea. Unfortunately it sounds like we're already busy erecting new ones.



    --
  • The armed forces pay *far* less than minimum wage to junior enlisted personnel.

    It's hardly surprising that the government fails to hold itself accountable to the same laws that it makes private enterprises obey.

  • I agree that hardware in exchagne for some code is not wrong.. however, labor law indicates that, if you are performing a service, or giving something of value to the company, they must pay you fairly for it. This means minimum wage.

    Actually, a one shot deal like writing a driver in exchange for hardware is about the most clear-cut case of an indepdent contractor relationship that I can imagine under the 20 common law factors [wsu.edu]. The company would not control when, where, or how you worked, there would not be a continuing relationship, they would not provide training, you would not work on the premises, etc. In fact, I don't think any of the factors would point to an employee relationship in the driver/hardware situation, but IANAL.

  • YHBT, HAND

    -Elendale (blahblahblah)

  • by Tony Shepps ( 333 ) on Sunday September 03, 2000 @09:35AM (#807948) Homepage
    The countless quality comments that I have written to Slashdot over the years have added a great deal of value to the property.

    This can be objectively proven by the anonymous moderating Slashdot users, who characterize the majority of my comments as high quality; and exactly the sort of content they are interested in reading: funny, informative, interesting and/or insightful.

    My content has both increased the number of people who are interested in reading the site, and the "stickiness" of the Slashdot site. Also, the fact that my comments have been archived indicates that Slashdot is leveraging all my work, despite the fact Slashdot freely admits that as the poster of my comments, I own them.

    Therefore, I am hereby declaring that I am a de-facto worker for Slashdot. My demands are not high... I only expect to be paid what I have been worth to the company. Since I've been posting these highly valuable comments for well before it became valuable, was sold/partnered and subsequently IPO'd, I shall accept nothing less than 0.01% of VA Linux stock.

    I shall expect further instructions on how we can both codify our contract with each other. However, lack of response to my message by September 29, 2000 shall represent a de-facto acceptance of my terms.

    I want loot by the end of the month, or you'll be hearing from my attorneys. Gentlemen, have a nice day.
    --

  • You're missing the point. I agree that it's unfortunate that AOL will have to pay these people back pay, but that's because I disagree with minimum wage laws in general. However, such laws exist, and AOL's volunteers may thus hold AOL accountable, without there being any degree of frivolity in the lawsuit. Please reread my hypothetical scenarios in the post you replied to, and explain what distinguishes them from what AOL is doing. Remember that, under current law, consenting to work for less than minimum wage does not remove your employer's legal obligation to pay you at least minimum wage. Also, you can generally volunteer at schools and charities without subjecting them to minimum wage laws, but this is not true of for-profit corporations.

  • You just need to get slaves^H^H^H^H^H^Hvolunteers from outside the country. =)

    Of course, the way the US INS (Immegration and Naturalization service) works, they might still come after you. I used to commute to the US for work, and the INS folks gave me nightmares more than once and I *had* all the correct visa information.
  • The definitions of an exempt employee in the software field are fairly specific. See some leagalese here [dol.gov].

    If you search around more in this document you'll find out that one of the requirements for expemtion was how much you are paid. I couldn't find it today, but during some previous investigation in this topic, I remember reading that software professionals must be paid 6.5 x minimum wage to be considered exempt. Plus, I think it is very arguable that the service that these AOL assistance provide does not meet the criteria set forth for a professional. However, for Open Source projects, this might be a problem. Especially for someone without very a lot of work history.

    Another point, the exemption is only from minimum wage and overtime regulations. Definitely not "most labor laws".

  • by KellyHallissey ( 229271 ) on Sunday September 03, 2000 @09:46AM (#807952)
    Face it, there's a few people getting very, very rich off the labors of a bunch of volunteers...

    No truer words have ever been spoken, this isn't about myself of Brian Williams, my co-plaintiff, trying to get rich, its about us trying to stop an employer, AmericaOnline, Inc. from exploiting individuals in order to turn a profit.

    I personally will receive one weeks back pay for the Federal suit, the person who started the DOL investigation will not receive a dime, Mr Williams will not receive much in monetary compensation either, this suit was not created for money nor :revenge", it was created because America's Largest ISP is breaking Federal and State Labor Laws, as well as tax laws.

    If there is a party to blame about the reprecussions from the suit, blame AOL, they knowingly broke the law, we can only be blamed for being stupid enough to be the free labor.

    Kelly Hallissey www.observers.net
  • when the "payment" is access to a service, especially one that can't be bought,

    Ummm. If a service can be provided, it /can/ be bought.

    That said, minimum wage is all about making enough money with the job you do to put food on the table, roof overhead, etc.

    Volunteer work, on the other hand, has no monetary compensation (atleast in the strictest sense) and therefore has no pretext of being a source of income to meet your basic needs.

    However, if an organization receives real value from volunteer effort, and pays for that effort with a tangible, transferable asset, then that should be considered an employment contract.

    Using your example, a hardware manufacturer produces a new device that needs a driver for your favorite operating system. You write the driver and give it to them, they give you a shiny new device as 'a reward.' The question then comes down to what they do with it. If they deliver the driver freely, they've gained no real value from your effort. If they sell the driver, you should have been paid a minimum wage. If you receive nothing for your effort, then it doesn't matter what they do with it.

    It's only a transaction, if each party is getting something real out of it. As far as the government is concerned, transactions where one party puts in labor should be appropriately compensated.

    So, what real thing is AOL getting out of these moderators? Nothing tangible, so this shouldn't count. Doesn't matter if it's for profit or not.

    Yeah, maybe their chat rooms would be useless without moderators. You know, more than they are with, I mean.;)

    --
  • I completely agree with Kelly. This isn't about us getting rich. This is about us seeing that large corporations stop getting richer by utilizing the sweat and tears of a sweatshop labor force. It's as simple as that. For all of you that want to whine and moan about it, that's fine. Go ahead. Fact is kids, this kind of stuff is not supposed to happen in the U.S. If you want free labor, go to a third world country. I'm working on my own American Dream, I'm not trying to make someone else's become a reality at the expense of my own. Sincerely, Brian Williams
  • no, that's not what he's talking about.

    ask any economist: minimum wage laws increase the wages for some number of workers who have jobs, but they decrease the wages of other workers who will not be employed at all. The effect is strong enough such that the overall result of minimum wage laws is to decrease the net amount of money that flows from employers to low wage families, and there is a further negative effect from the decrease in the number of people getting valuable first job experiences.

    If you care about the working poor, you should be against minimum wage laws and instead be in favor of policies that increase employment.

    this is all standard econ 101: who is it that someone can be considered educated without it?

  • this is all standard econ 101

    Of course, those of us who stayed on for Econ 201 learned that it is by no means as simple as this ....

  • I'm going to list items that have been either misrepresented or misinterpeted so that you all may discuss the origins of this suit with knowledge as your base.

    The lawsuit came after the Department of Labor investigation was over six months old. The individual that started the DOL investigation, had already passed his statute of limitations to gain financially from the investigation should a favorable decision be made. His reasons for starting the investigation was the unfair practices America Online employed upon its "volunteer force". Specifically, the termination and removal of many of the leadership of the guide progam on AOL, the attempt to charge us to work for them, the removal of all benefits for working for them, and the placement of a management team that destroyed the bulk of the program we were all in.

    I was the one who started the lawsuit after joining the Dept of Labor investigation they informed me that the investigation would not be over by the time my statute of limitations was up. Out of everyone involved in the DOL investigation, I had the most concrete documentation of what our working conditions were like, the rules, logs, etc of our employment. I was urged to file a lawsuit to enable the usage of the 100 plus megs of data that has now become proof in our suit.

    I filed the lawsuit with approximately 1 week of the statute of limitations remaining, with the DOL the clock doesn't stop, with the courts it does. If I win this case I believe I will only get 1 weeks worth of pay. Mr Williams has a slightly longer S.ofL. than I but not much. This is important to note due to the high quantity of people claiming we are doing this for money.

    Neither of us will get much of anything financially.

    When we were hired, we were hired as Remote Staff a term now used to describe ACI (AmericaOnline Communities Inc) employees, paid remotes who supervise the "volunteers". Our applications and agreements with AOL said we would be compensated with an Overhead account the value of which was $10 per online hour.

    Partway through my employment with AOL, they removed our overhead accounts, tried to charge us 3.95 per month for our accounts, removed almost all tools we used to help members, and fired and terminated anyone who spoke out against them on any issue, including myself and Mr Williams.

    My Account was noted do not reactivate contact operations security and my screen names were locked up so that nobody could create them. If I attempted to sign on with a friends account or one made for me, it was terminated. What did I do? I spoke out against an abusive management team and reposted a post from another guide showing AOL was lying to us about removal of 800 number access.

    What were the rules of our employment? 300 plus pages of them, including but not limited to: peer reviews every 90 days, timecards beginning and ending of shifts, posting shift reports, the ability to remove chat privledges from members and have accounts checked for validity, as well as have their accounts actioned via reports we made upon them, mandatory training where exams and modules were the norm, observed shifts to ensure we were able to do the work required, forms to fill out in order to go on a LOA either medical or personal which had to be approved in order to receive (at one time they fired several parties with terminal illnesses due to their inability to do shifts, a few signed on from hospitals in order not to be fired) a Minimum time requirement (at one time was 14 hours per week) , formal procedures for disciplining guides which could be special classes they had to take to be "reformed" or removal of privledges etc.

    Sounds an awful lot like an employee handbook doesn't it? I volunteered for BSA amongst many other organizations. We were trained what we were allowed to ask of a volunteer. We could not remove one without just cause and a paid scouter had to be in the decision making. It had to be problems with children not being treated properly or improper dressing etc. It could not be because they said the scoutmaster was an idiot, on AOL however, all you had to do was question management on any issue and you would be removed.

    As someone who directly oversaw 45 scout leaders, trained hundreds more, was on district level scouting, I can speak quite firmly and accurately that the relationship with America Online was not a volunteer one.

    So why did we do it?

    Why did we let ourselves get into a situation where we were basically used and abused, and not leave? I can give you dozens of answers.

    Many "volunteers" were disabled, terminally ill, or unable to function fully in society for a variety of reasons. Online they found a niche that they could not find offline. They were the ones truly dependant upon AOL. Ultimately, they were the ones hurt most by AOL.

    Others got into the "power" of being a part of AOLs staff. Some abused it, some used it to pick up people for relationships/sex.

    Still more enjoyed helping folks.

    Me? I did it to get a paying job because I felt that by getting in on the ground floor I could work my way up. Almost all of my closest friends have gone onto paid positions, but they kept their mouths shut, I didn't.

    And the prevailing reason all of the groups above had in common? Online addiction. It IS an addiction and many many many people are hooked firmly with it.

    Now, should the lawsuit affect other organisations that use volunteers? Yes and no.

    MSN pays their hosts, because their lawyers told them to. People who performed functions like we did on AOL or on MSN should be paid and compensated, as employees.

    No this should not affect everyone, if the person running the site, lets use mine as an example, does not turn a profit off of your providing customer support, technical assistance, TOS enforcement (like we did on aol) then there is no problem. IF the company is making money hand over fist? Then they should pay the hosts.

    I AM sorry volunteers are losing their free accounts, and I wish that didn't have to happen. But unfortunately, it does and will continue to happen. Too many companies have taken it upon themselves to follow in AOLs footsteps and use people with their permission yes, but use them illegally.

    The law states that if the employer controls the relationship, it is not a volunteer one. The law states that you can not abuse someone just because they said you could.

    I'd like to leave you with the following comments.

    An AOL "volunteer" was fired for not performing her shifts because she was hospitalized with toxemia.

    An AOL "volunteer" was fired while being hospitalized for a progressive disease.

    An AOL "volunteer" signed on from a hospital bed to do his shift while undergoing chemotherapy because he was told if he did not he would be fired and terminated.

    Innumerable "volunteers" were written up for being 30 seconds late for a shift so they could be fired.

    9 AOL "volunteers" were told that after organizing the guide strike that they could come back only if they underwent a "reconditioning" class for several weeks.

    By my count, out of people I know, 74 "volunteers" were fired, 34 labeled security risks and terminated, 0 were given an avenue for recourse.

    And lastly, how DO you fire a volunteer?

    Kelly Hallissey
    www.observers.net
  • quite a few muds probably do have some kind of organzation, same as a volunteer-run sportsclub. No idea what the legal term is, but it does offer some small advantages.

    //rdj
  • Just what do you plan to do about it?

    For now, I plan to vote for Harry Browne.

    Long-term, I intend to bring it up whenever I'm speaking to my legislators.

    What do *YOU* plan to do about it?

    If everyone is competing to work for the lowest wage, then everyone's wage ends up as low as the most desperate person's.

    Bullshit. If that were true, we'd all be making minimum wage now. I dunno about you, but I'm making a lot more than that.

    Hello, sweatshops.

    Sweatshops have a damn site more dignity than welfare. However, in order to have a sweatshop, you have to violate other laws than just the minimum wage.

    -
  • "Minimum wage laws may well be the extreme form of redress, but who on earth would think that people putting in the kinds of hours many volunteers have should be denied something more in the way of fair compensation for the time they give?"

    I disagree with the suit. I think that the vovlunteers already had an option, which they failed to use. They could have left any time they wanted to.

    They could have slacked off, they could have failed to follow the guidelines they didn't like. In fact, I'd guess that many of them did slack off, and that many of them did fail to follow the guidelines.

    Let's look at the other side for a moment. A bunch of people offer to help AOL. AOL finds that some of the people helping seem to actually be making things worse, so they make some suggestions about how the volunteers should behave, and they offer training, hoping to improve the situation, while still allowing the people who want to help to do so.

    They offer free accounts because they realize that some of the volunteers are actually making the service better, and they want to reward that sort of activity. They realize there is a risk of everyone signing up as a volunteer to get the free access, even if they aren't actually helping, so perhaps they attach some conditions to the free access to prevent it from being abused.

    What have they done wrong? Have they forced anyone to put up with intolerable conditions? Have they abused anyone? Have they offered employment with a wage that is too low? At what point have they forced anyone to interact with them?

    You've all been free to throw their disks away and ignore them. I know I've done so.

    I don't see that AOL has done anything wrong in this case. Other cases, perhaps, but not this one.

  • by snackface ( 131521 ) on Sunday September 03, 2000 @08:16AM (#807966)
    (NOTE: IUTBAL, which means I can say IANAL now, but couldn't always say that...;^) )

    The problem is essentially one of scale, and context. When is volunteering OK, and when is it exploitative? For example, I'm a salaried employee, so if my company has something that absolutely has to get done *now*, they can compel me to drag my butt in on the weekend or take it home and get it done. They can't do the same to my hourly coworkers, unless they're willing to pay them for their time. Even if it's a really, really cool project and lots of fun to work on, those guys can't come in without being paid for it - no volunteerism allowed?

    Why is that? Well, let's say my employer realizes that a bunch of them are willing to come in and volunteer, but a bunch more are only willing to come in if they're paid overtime. All other factors being equal, which group's labor is in the company's best interest? Why, the free ones, of course! Volunteerism is great for the bottom line! In fact, some of what my chunk of the company does could even be done by totally unrelated people, who might like the chance to come in for a weekend and do some work for us, on a purely volunteer basis, of course. More free labor! More profit!

    So let's get back to AOL. Those community leader types are doing some very valuable work for the company. Without their labor, AOL wouldn't be such a compelling place for those who are compelled to use AOL. (Don't ask me why people do that; not my tastes, but it's obviously a big deal to the masses.) If all of the community leaders were to disappear, AOL would actually have to hire and PAY people to do that work. Which means, therefore, that the work that volunteer community leaders do has real economic value, and by not compensating them for that work, AOL benefits off their exploitation.

    There is, of course, the question of whether one can be exploited without their permission. I can see some circumstances where people might volunteer for what would otherwise be a paid position in hopes of gaining employment. That's definitely something that a ruthless company could exploit. "Not this week, but maybe next week I might find you a paying job. Keep on volunteering!" It happens. Here where I live, it happens with farm laborers pretty often, in fact. It's a way of milking free work and avoiding paying people.

    Implications for open source are pretty interesting. As long as contributors are essentially "independent contractors", release their work under a license (GPL's a nice one. :^) ), and aren't solely volunteering their work to one single entity, I think they might be OK. Problems arise if, say, someone writes a nifty utility that they only give to Microsoft (as an example), and Microsoft thanks them for their "volunteerism", incorporates the utility, and gets even filthier rich off it - that's a problem. Essentially, if I write something for my personal business, where I'm my own employer, and then choose to give it away, that's cool.

    Make sense? (As much sense as legal stuff can, anyway?) - I haven't followed the AOL case too rigorously, but don't think it's necessarily evil. Face it, there's a few people getting very, very rich off the labors of a bunch of volunteers, and giving them free AOL access doesn't begin to compensate them adequately for the benefit they bring (and the profits S. Case et al. make off their work).

  • Most employees in the U.S.A. do not have contracts and are "employees at will". That means that they can be fired for any reason w/o notice, except an illegal reason (discrimination, or assertion of rights, etc).

    There is a 20 question common law test mostly regarding control of the person by the employer to make the determination. Micosoft got burned on this a few years ago. They called employees contractors, then when caught by the IRS, they paid the IRS. Then these employees then demanded their stock options and got them.

  • You can send me my $5 via paypal.com.

    Thank you.
  • If that's true, why do we have a minimum wage law to begin with? If someone is willing to work for $2, why should the government tell them that they can't?

    The point of the minimum wage law is to prevent people being not able to earn enough money to live.
    But does the minimum wage law guarantee employment? No. Does it guarantee a minimum number of hours of employment? No.
    Bill can't do shit about this. If all the employers lower their wages, he has to either take the job, or go unemployed. Add in the fact that there is almost always somebody who will take the job, even at a low price, and suddenly Bill is unemployable.
    And, being a libertarian bastard, I've never understood the inherent problem with this. Like anything else, labor is worth what the laborer is willing to sell it for, and what the employer is willing to pay for it. If we, as a society, believe that there should be a minimum level of compensation for labor, then we shouldn't be imposing those costs on individual employers, but instead bear the costs as a society, by (a) eliminating taxes on wages under that level, and (b) instituting an Earned Income Credit based upon the hours worked and the wages paid.
  • Actually, the reason people go into sweatshop circumstances is that their alternatives are worse (most often due to other govt. interference in the economy) elsewhere. Immigrants from China are paying 60k to snakeheads to smuggle them in to the US and are willing to exchange 20 years of sweatshop labor for the privilege they are handing their children of living relatively free.

    The case of people not capable of earning a living wage is more rare and often transitory. A 15 yr old might not know enough about the business world to do more than flip burgers but in 6 months of conscientious work, he's got the employee skills necessary to clerk or do other office work that should pay better and provide better conditions.

    The reality today in many areas is that even McDonalds and many other traditional minimum wage employers are offering $8 per hour to fill those jobs because of a labor shortage because there has been a consensus among enough democrats and republicans to stay out of the free market's way (at least enough to generate full employment).

    Unless we screw up via government action, this happy state of affairs will persist most of the time and we will be able to do away with minimum wage, and the stupid effects it has on volunteerism.

    DB
  • I am sad that I have no moderator points, yet happy that I didn't have to try to get this point noticed myself being so late in the discussion.

    There are huge legal conflicts when you "volunteer" for a money making profit-for-profit's-sake entity that can't be rationally compared to traditional volunteer work for your school, charity of choice, political action group or community at large.

    -Kahuna Burger

  • The trick is, the IRS has some strict tests that you have to pass in order to be considered an independent contractor, and they go out of their way to find that you're actually a quasi-employee. They get lots of back taxes and penalties against your 'employer' that way. Consequently, many employers are gun-shy about trying to have some be an independent contractor.

    I'm with the IRS on this one. Trying to pass off an employee as a contracter isn't just cheating the IRS, its often screwing the employee. One of my friends got badly bitten while working at a grooming shop. When the owner found out that the injuries could be very severe, she tried to get my friend to sign a new employment contract re-defining her as an independant contractor. Turns out that the owner not only was in flagrent OSHA violation (the lack of any first aid supplies contributed to the severity of the infection) she had been skipping on workers comp payments.

    If you want to be in business for yourself as a contractor, great, but never let an employer tell you "You'll be working assigned hours and reporting to the maneger here, but you're really an independant contractor for tax purposes."

    -Kahuna Burger

  • Geez, and that's just the tip of the iceberg.
    Everquest has to have some massive server farms (Cha-Ching!) which needs to be housed (Cha-Ching!) maintained by a crew of cluefull administrators (Cha-ching! Cha-Ching!). Their high bandwitdth output (Cha-ching!) Their programmers who are constantly bug hunting and upgrading the software. (Cha-Ching!)

    I believe they are making money though. Any industry insiders willing to reveal how profitable EQ is?
  • Min. Wage is an hourly standard. You can't apply that to the Armed Forces.

    Earlier, I calculated a 40 hour min wage week to equal a little less than 11k.

    In the Armed Forces junior enlisted personnel get free food and housing. You also get a clothes allowance and such.

    Those benifits are added into your pay, you end up making more than min wage.

    This isn't enough for some people to live on though. But instead of complaining about it, I left. :-)

    Later
    Erik Z
  • Nice idea, but...

    Isin't it normal practice for the company to give the hardware to the person writing the driver, _before_ he writes it.

    So that, like, he knows if it works or not?

    Makes it difficult to call it a competition.
  • Let's imagine for a moment that a US-based online gaming company decides to start paying its "volunteers" the minimum wage. What does this mean for the volunteers who are not US citizens or residents?

    That gets even more difficult if the 'volunteers' are from the UK. We have a different minimum wage (£4/hr = $6.40/hr) - so which one are they entitled to ?
  • The volunteers on AOL were hired and terminated like employees, told to work specific hours like employees, and in every respect except compensation and benefits were employees of AOL. That is the issue. AOL is trying to get away with having an unpaid workforce and the suit seeks to slap their wrist for it. Verant is doing the same thing with everquest, and Microsoft lost a similar suit by its contract employees.

  • They were volunteers. Nobody conscripted them, no one put a gun to their heads and no one is to blame for their being overworked except them.

    Analogy: I volunteer at a local middle school for 10 hours a week and eat free meals in the cafetaria there. This translates to 50 cents an hour. Following your reasoning and that of the frivilous litigators who were formerly AOL volunteers, I should sue the school for back pay.

    Sounds moronic doesn't it?


    (-1 Troll)
  • by Animats ( 122034 ) on Sunday September 03, 2000 @09:18AM (#808003) Homepage
    And on Labor Day weekend, we should think about it.

    A profit-making company in the US can't use unpaid volunteer labor. Even "internships" are on shakey legal ground; hospital interns in Boston are forming a union. And the definition of "independent contractor" isn't up to the employer, either; it's defined in the Fair Labor Standards Act. Factors which have been found to be useful in distinguishing between employees and independent contractors for FLSA purposes [thegroup.net] are:

    • the degree of the alleged employer's right to control the manner in which the work is to be performed
    • the alleged employee's opportunity for profit or loss, depending upon his managerial skill
    • the alleged employee's investment in equipment or materials required for his task, or his employment of helper
    • whether the service rendered requires a special skill
    • the degree of permanence of the working relationship
    • whether the service rendered is an integral part of the alleged employer's business.

    Usually, if the employer controls the work, it's employment. This clearly applies to AOL's attempt to recruit unpaid customer support people. In the game world, it's less clear. Schemes where players can page any on-duty game counsellor for tech support look a lot like employment, though. Especially if the service insists they be polite and responsive. That's employer control.

    A co-op game service, where the members actually owned the service, wouldn't have this problem. But where the members aren't owners, it's probably employment. (A phony co-op tied to a commercial service wouldn't work; among other things, the IRS looks closely at ties between non-profit and profit-making organizations, because that's usually a tax dodge.)

  • I demand my $6/hour for reading all the articles and posting to Slashdot (even the "1st post!"'s). After all, I contribute to Slashdot getting readership and the readership contributes to the ad revenue...
  • Just what do you plan to do about it? Reading a few other posts, it's quite apparent that AOL was exploiting people who would do anything for free hours.

    Are you saying that the minimum wage should be done away with? If everyone is competing to work for the lowest wage, then everyone's wage ends up as low as the most desperate person's. Hello, sweatshops.
    --
    No more e-mail address game - see my user info. Time for revenge.
  • by bmo ( 77928 ) on Sunday September 03, 2000 @11:30AM (#808009)
    You knew, getting in, that AOL was a FOR PROFIT COMPANY.

    You _VOLUNTEERED_

    If you decided that your time was worth 20 bux/month, then that is what it's worth. There's no going back and saying "Oh, I deserve more money, gimme more or I'll SUE." In other words, *you* decided that your hourly wage was 20/time, NOT AOL.

    You could have told AOL to stuff it and use your precious time for something more productive, but you didn't. As someone who volunteers here and there, I have _no_ sympathy for your poor choices. You screwed _yourself_, bud. Nobody isted your arm to volunteer. Comparing yourself to someone who is getting slave wages in a third-world country is beyond intellectual dishonesty, it's so indescribably macaronic that for me to find a shred of intelligence, I'd have to consult the ghost of Moe Howard.

    Go AWAY. Don't EVER volunteer for ANYTHING ever AGAIN.

    You guys are going to scotch it up for anyone who wants an internship in a for-profit company, for people who need to get *experience* so they can get *hired for real*, and for people who do such things for Fun and Self Satisfaction. The latter is what you SHOULD have used as a criteria for volunteering for AOL. If this was not the case, then you need your head examined.

    If there's something wrong here, it's your SELF SERVING and SELF RIGHTEOUS attitude. It's not about "fair wages" on your end is it? It's about your "pound of flesh". Fine, then you've just earned the scorn and derision of anyone who's truely done volunteer work.
  • by unformed ( 225214 ) on Sunday September 03, 2000 @06:09AM (#808010)
    if AOL is subject to minimum wage laws, what about other, more traditional volunteers?

    almost every organization that is a volunteer organization offers some sort of perks, and much of it should be expected...

    a hardware company can't expect people to write drivers -and- buy their hardware...just as a volunteer fireman can't be expected to bring his own fire truck...

    second question is, how can the perk be compared to wages? when the "payment" is access to a service, especially one that can't be bought, and so doesn't have a retial value) how does that compare to monetary wages?...

    IMO this shouldn't be considered hired work...it's more similar to a temporary "you scratch my back, i'll scratch your" agreement, and as long as both parties involved are satisfied, no intervention should be necessary....
  • by Captain Derivative ( 182945 ) on Sunday September 03, 2000 @06:20AM (#808012)

    From the article:

    "Due to changes in the industry regarding volunteers, effective Sept. 30, 2000, OSI will no longer provide free player accounts or other added value to members of all [Ultima Online] Volunteer Programs."

    So, if I'm reading this correctly, OSI (in this case) isn't actually terminating the Volunteer Programs, but just eliminating any of the perks/compensation that go along with it. Does that actually shield them from lawsuits? Or does it change the claim from "You aren't paying me minimum wage for my work!" to "You aren't paying me at all for my work!"?

    Either way, legal necessity or not, these companies are shooting themselves in the foot PR-wise. It's a lose-lose situation.

    Although reading this article made me wonder what the legal distinction between "employee" and "volunteer" is. Is a volunteer just someone who willingly works for nothing? Is an employee nothing but a compensated volunteer?

    Rationally, if one of these volunteers isn't happy with the perks they're getting, no one's forcing them to be a volunteer. I seriously doubt people are making any kind of living off of this -- they surely have a real job or something. So wouldn't that rationally (note: not necessarily legally) render the point moot?


    --

  • by Carnage4Life ( 106069 ) on Sunday September 03, 2000 @06:23AM (#808013) Homepage Journal
    AOL volunteers have already sued AOL [internetnews.com], it's even been on here on slashdot [slashdot.org].

    Frankly the lawsuit is the most frivolous lawsuit imaginable. These people volunteered to monitor chat rooms and the like for AOL and one day suddenly realize that they would rather have gotten pay and sue AOL. From this story it seems that other companies are reviewing their volunteer policy based on the frivolous lawsuit because if someone can volunteer to do work and later sue for back wages, then someone else who receives non-financial payment for services rendered has an even stronger reason to sue for back wages because they are more likely to have been thought of as employees deserving payment by a court than a volunteer.


    (-1 Troll)
  • by Captain Pillbug ( 12523 ) on Sunday September 03, 2000 @06:27AM (#808014)
    The DOJ publishes a handbook [dol.gov] for small businesses about minimum wage laws. There do exist exceptions, and if I were with AOL, I'd explore one or more of the following:

    Certain types of farm setups are exempt. Perhaps the number of sheep subscribing to AOL could get them certified as a farming operation.

    Fishing operations are exempt. With all the trolling of AOLers, ditto.

    Casual babysitters and people who care for the infirm are also exempt. See what I'm getting at?

  • Hey,

    I would think it would fall under a similar category to a competition. They could say 'The first person to send a good device driver for item X to drivercomp@aol.com wins a 1Ghz Pentium III computer'.

    Unless competitions are now illigal...

    Michael Tandy

    ...another comment from Michael Tandy.

  • Evil. Debatably prosecutable. But why prosecute over the nature of volunteerism, rather than for psychological abuse?

    - Michael Cohn
  • There is, of course, the question of whether one can be exploited without their permission. I can see some circumstances where people might volunteer for what would otherwise be a paid position in hopes of gaining employment. That's definitely something that a ruthless company could exploit. "Not this week, but maybe next week I might find you a paying job. Keep on volunteering!" It happens. Here where I live, it happens with farm laborers pretty often, in fact. It's a way of milking free work and avoiding paying people.

    Sounds like something that could be said by someone fed up with the Mozilla project. Lots of people work on Mozilla, and several of the ones who have put the most work into it have been hired by Netscape.

    Who runs the Mozilla project again?

    --

  • If someone is willing to work for $2, why should the government tell them that they can't?

    Most certainly. Perhaps you are indendently wealthy, and just like the job. You take the job, meaning that someone who does need the minimum wage to feed her kids is out of a job.

    Minimum wage isn't there just to protect the one employee. Is there to protect everyone. (Oh, and not umimportant, a wage of $2/hour brings in less taxes than a wage of $20/hour).

    If you still think that there should be a minimum wage law, then why doesn't it apply to volunteerism?

    Voluteerism is usually for charities and non-profit organizations, not for coorperations. AOL isn't a charity. And a church isn't a coorperation.

    -- Abigail

  • (a) eliminating taxes on wages under that level,

    At 5.25 an hour, 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year, you make $10,920.

    Even if you decide to pay taxes on that, you get it back in the IRS refund.
    Even when I made less than (as part of the sub-minimum-wage military) I didn't get all of my taxes back. You see, you still pay Social Security and Medicare taxes.
  • (b) instituting an Earned Income Credit based upon the hours worked and the wages paid.

    Which would be a minimum wage, but paid for by the government rather than by corporations. And how is that libertarian?
    It isn't. I don't like the minimum wage laws. But if we, as a society working through our government, decide that someone who is willing and able to work should be able to survive, then society/the government as a whole should foot the bill, rather than shifting the burden to faceless corporations.
  • I guess I don't understand what's so wrong with "firing" a volunteer. Think of Slashdot: people moderate. Sometimes moderators abuse the privilege. So they get meta-moderated as unfair and may be deleted from the moderation list. What's the problem here?

    I do think that AOL abused its relationship with its volunteers, particularly by asking them to provide customer support. But I would be very, very angry as a frequent participant in online communities if this suit had the outcome of prohibiting volunteerism in for-profit sites.

    sulli

  • by Metrol ( 147060 ) on Sunday September 03, 2000 @01:14PM (#808026) Homepage
    Me too!
  • An adverse outcome to this lawsuit could destroy Slashdot, and thousands of other sites like it. Can you imagine the sharks (and that is what they are) suing CmdrTaco to force payment for the time spent moderating? It would mean that moderation would have to revert to the old "400 lucky winners" scheme or worse. Not to mention the trouble that would come from involvement of people from overseas, once the xenophobic Prop-187 types smell blood.

    This is yet another example of how the law has totally failed to evolve to reflect reality, except as defined by the powerful and connected. In this case the old-economy forces such as labor unions and employment lawyers are trying to maintain power based on technicalities as opposed to the merits.

    What's the EFF doing about this? Are they coming up with any recommendations on where to draw lines between volunteers and staff? Clearly someone in the tech community needs to take a stand here, or we will wake up one morning and discover that yet another of the great things we've worked so hard to build is gone.

    sulli

  • Okay, so the plaintiffs won't make much off the suit. They don't usually in class actions, so this is not a surprise:

    I personally will receive one weeks back pay for the Federal suit, the person who started the DOL investigation will not receive a dime, Mr Williams will not receive much in monetary compensation either, this suit was not created for money nor :revenge", it was created because America's Largest ISP is breaking Federal and State Labor Laws, as well as tax laws.

    But I must ask Mr. Hallissey: how much money will the lawyers get? Clearly they're doing this on contingency. If the class gets a few million bucks, do the lawyers get 30%? As a stakeholder in the outcome (I participate in online forums like /. that benefit significantly from volunteer involvement), I demand a full and complete disclosure.

    sulli

  • Regarding your words:"essentially mandating" that you do this or that . .
    This is where you went wrong.
    The moment you feel like you're under some kind of obligation is when you cut back on you walk away. This was your mistake, not AOLs.

    What mistake? I left at the point that AOL demanded an NDA for the privilege of getting a 'free' account for working my ass off.

    You, as many others do, assume that anyone stupid enough to even log to AOL deserves bent over a barrel and raped. I don't see where this is at all productive, especially since many of the people who got screwed over the worst were people who had literally helped build the very forums that AOL was popular for. The change was dramatic and devastating for both those who owned and built the forums and the people who had been there helping maintain them since the days when AOL was Mac only.

    In 1997, with the advent of unlimited access to AOL, workloads trebled overnight for most people doing forum work of any sort. In most areas, there was no way to get guides in chat rooms, nor could you get TOS to action anything unless it was practically neo-nazi death threats. Compensation fell from $3 an hour, which was the per hour connection rate, to $19.95 a month in for the newly coined 'community leaders', who were usually the same people. The change in policy, frankly, looked a lot more like Steve Case trying to dodge any possibility of future tax obligations than anything else. A comp account is treated differently on the books than a community leader account--go figure.

    AOL had not been prepared for unlimited access essentially raising login rates by ten times. They then attempted to cover their asses with bandaids while users were filing lawsuits about endless busy signals. Some forums and areas were so severely understaffed that it was no longer possible to provide the same level of services that had been traditionally offered. People actually started migrating to the net because it was 'safe' out here. Forums that had gone fallow for lack of staff were closed in favor of more dumbing down of the service in general.

    We found it impossible to recruit, hire, and retain people who were qualified, because Steve Case was busy dumbing the service down more than it had been previous. Eventually, people looked at the $19.95 they got for the work that they got to do and basically averted. It didn't take long for the brain drain to kick in and then AOL slid completely into the toilet with the release of AOL 3.0.

    AOL's essential problems have always been with the suits in upper management. AOL pre-Windows was a pretty decent service. AOL pre-unlimited was tolerable. AOL after unlimited was a zoo where animals walked the streets and ate pedestrians. There was a lot of misrepresentation about the duties, actual authority, and compensation that community leaders had and that came straight from corporate--so it wasn't purely stupid people getting duped. They plan great big things and unleash them on their volunteer labor force without the slightest thought to how they would have to be implemented. AOL stopped being a community and became about not offending anyone, which coincidentally cost them a lot of their fulltime internal talent at the same time.

  • The real issue is that this "volunteer" effort is not being taxed. It is a barter transaction - trading goods of percieved like value. What AOL is getting out of the deal is ducking out of a fairly huge amount of taxes, SSI and worker's comp payments that they'd have to pay if they admitted that what they are paying has value.

    Of course, that assumes that access to AOL has value.

  • by Ho-Lee-Cow! ( 173978 ) on Sunday September 03, 2000 @06:32AM (#808034)

    As a former 'community leader', it is very easy to understand what brought this about. I left after AOL made numerous changes to policy about -everything- and were essentially mandating that we all do jobs for which we didn't have the authority or tools to do. Try reading 300-500 board messages a day, file upwards of 20 TOS reports, and answer numerous emails in less than 4 hours and you can begin to see the problem. In addition, the area that I worked in pretty much required a 20 hour a week committment, with no more than the promise of a free account and a lot of hate mail. It was also next to impossible to get new volunteers, because of the serious obstacles that AOL placed between them and getting training.

    If AOL is being sued, given the numerous changes that were designed to only benefit the bottom line on the backs of a workforce that they are -quite- willing to exploit, then the suit is justified. Minimum wage laws may well be the extreme form of redress, but who on earth would think that people putting in the kinds of hours many volunteers have should be denied something more in the way of fair compensation for the time they give?

    Steve Case will do anything to make money.

  • by Money__ ( 87045 ) on Sunday September 03, 2000 @06:33AM (#808035)
    . .but it will sink like the titanic.
    From the article:
    "While company representatives have not said so outright, it appears the move to eliminate what amounted to a $10 a month gratuity for volunteers is related to a recent New York class action lawsuit, brought by former volunteers at America Online (AOL). The plaintiffs are claiming that AOL's practice of relying on what it calls "community leaders" to produce, maintain and moderate online content was tantamount to employment, and hence is covered by American minimum wage laws."

    I helped maintained a few Forums for many years on Compuserve out of the the love of the topic I was working with. When my priotities shifted and I no longer had the time to maintain that forum, I'm sure there were other member waiting to help out. In return for helping with so many forums, they gave me free access and made me a "helper" for a few months.

    Consider, for a moment, what www.dmoz.org/ [dmoz.org] is doing with the open directory project. A small group of people using their life experiance and expertise to help other people find relavant information on the web. Once again, this is done out of kindness for the comunity and not for some kind of return. The ony payment is in the satisfaction of a job well done.

    The problem with the volenteers is that they're "hooked" and the thought of them just stoping their on-line activity seems forein to them. "Wha?!? give up AOL? ? That would be like not breathing??", they might say, and there is the problem.

    If you feel like you should be getting payed for the volenteer work you're doing, you're doing to much, and you should stop. The thought of holding AOL somehow liable for this very generous and fair bartering agreement is just daffy!

    One more note: this is a class action suit brought for the volenteers. I smell a team of lawyers in bad suits looking to score easy money.

  • by Perianwyr Stormcrow ( 157913 ) on Sunday September 03, 2000 @06:34AM (#808036) Homepage
    What's at issue here is the definition of employment. If you provide a service that has monetary value to a non-profit organization or charity, that is true voluntarism. However, the concept of voluntarism is not applicable when the organization you're doing it for is profiting from your labor. Volunteering to assist on your favorite free MUD is one thing, as no one's really making any money there. But volunteering for Ultima Online is another, since EA saves massive amounts of money on support costs because you're there- and they definitely pocket all the money. I suspect that in the future online game companies will create a separate corporate entity which all volunteers join when accepted, and that company will have a contractual relationship with the game company to provide support in return for free accounts or whatever, just to dodge labor law.

    --Perianwyr Stormcrow
  • by blaine ( 16929 ) on Sunday September 03, 2000 @06:36AM (#808037)
    The point of the minimum wage law is to prevent people being not able to earn enough money to live.

    Example: say Bill is looking for a job. He wants $5.25 an hour. But all the employers will only give him $4/hr .

    Bill can't do shit about this. If all the employers lower their wages, he has to either take the job, or go unemployed. Add in the fact that there is almost always somebody who will take the job, even at a low price, and suddenly Bill is unemployable. That, or he'll need 2 or 3 jobs just to live.

    The difference between this and volunteerism is that in volunteerism, somebody is saying "I don't want a job, I want to do you a favor. If you want to do me a favor in return [like give me a new video card], thats fine." It isn't intended to be a way of making a living.

We can found no scientific discipline, nor a healthy profession on the technical mistakes of the Department of Defense and IBM. -- Edsger Dijkstra

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