May 14, 2008

Dopey lawsuit

I got an interesting letter today in the mail. It was a letter asking me to join a class-action lawsuit against America Online (AOL) to collect "unpaid wages and overtime wages on behalf of current and former unpaid 'volunteers.'"

My first -- and only, really -- response was utter disdain and sneering laughter. No wonder attorneys get a bum rap. It's 'cuz of lawsuits like this. Y'see, back in the mid-90s, a fellow teacher asked me if I had AOL. When I replied that I did, she informed me of a program whereby AOL would give you free unlimited AOL access in return for a certain amount of time volunteering as a "Community Leader," in my case it was working in the "Homework Help" section. There, I'd assist students via message boards and in live chat rooms with homework questions. I did this for about four years. Getting AOL for free in exchange was a decent deal, in my view. I knew the deal and accepted it. Besides, it was fun.

Which brings me back to this lawsuit. Could the plaintiffs really have not known what they were getting into with AOL? If they thought what AOL offered them in return for their time was unjust, couldn't they have simply said ... "no?" Granted, there were many types of "Community Leaders;" some worked more hours than others, I'm sure. Nevertheless, if one wasn't sure of the agreement, either find out or don't do the job. Don't friggin' do the job, then file a friggin' lawsuit years later because you think the set-up was "unfair."

I may have to send this one to Overlawyered.com.

UPDATE: I did some Googling and found some interesting comments, especially on this AOL message board.

Here's more:

Volunteers' Wage & Hour Claim For Back Pay. In deciding workplace rights, labels do not matter. In this case, being called a volunteer does not mean that America Online's chat room volunteer “community leaders” did not perform work covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act and New York law and, as a result, that they are not entitled to back wages for that work. To decide whether a person is a covered employee, a court must look closely at the facts concerning how the services were performed. The FLSA has a very broad definition of employment, that is, “to suffer or permit to work.” Hallissey v. America Online Inc., Case No.99-CIV-3785, (S.D.N.Y. Mar. 20, 2006).

Among the duties the volunteers performed were managing and updating message boards; moderating chat rooms, including preventing inappropriate conduct; updating, deleting, and modifying forum content; running special features; writing reports about sessions and their actions; and providing tutoring services. Volunteers were required to work a minimum number of hours per week. The volunteers believed that to get a paid position, they were required to volunteer for AOL. In fact, the evidence showed that AOL had tended to hire its paid staff from their volunteer staff. In addition, volunteer services were similar to those of paid employees. The court concluded that these facts supported a conclusion that what the volunteers did was work that entitled them to backpay. (Link.)

My emphasis above. What isn't understood about "volunteer"??? And those "required hours" per week were beyond flexible. You could what you had to do when you wanted -- whenever it was convenient for you!

A very good summary of the whole case is here.

Posted by Hube at May 14, 2008 07:50 PM | TrackBack

Comments  (We reserve the right to edit and/or delete any comments. If your comment is blocked or won't post, e-mail us and we'll post it for you.)

Hube,

Got the same thing. I did this for about three months back in 2001. As I remember, it was made explicitly clear that you didn't need to work more than a few hours a week and that, as a volunteer, there was no pay aside from receiving free AOL.

Needless to say, the reply they're getting is one of "eff off," so to speak.

Posted by: Mike Matthews at May 15, 2008 01:00 PM