Summer volunteers raise legal, insurance and pay issues

Summer volunteers raise legal, insurance and pay issues

May 01, 2008

I remember the summer days of my youth. My dad's veterinary practice, within walking distance of the local high school, was always fully staffed with local adolescents who just loved to be around animals. True, they didn't know anything about animal restraint or when to use gloves or pretty much anything else, but they were eager and willing and looking for a chance to get some experience with a veterinarian.

Today, many of those kids are vets or licensed technicians themselves, or receptionists at one of the local practices.

My father is gone now, but if he were alive today to see all of the potential legal, labor and liability issues associated with letting untrained high-school volunteers help out at a veterinary clinic, he would be sad, dismayed and frustrated. In a way, I am glad he isn't here to see what this litigious society has wrought upon the marvelous vet/volunteer relationship that existed in the 1950s and 1960s when he was building his practice.

Mutual benefits

Back in the day, the volunteer helper from school was a genuine benefit to the veterinary practice and the veterinary experience helped broaden the kids' horizons and give them a good idea of whether they really should pursue a career in animal health.

The high schoolers worked hard and had an opportunity to get some hands-on experience with animals. The vet kept an eye out for their safety, and if something happened the parents would tend to the volunteer son or daughter. They rarely if ever came back against the veterinarian or his business for money damages.

Those days are all but over. While there's no question that the experience a summer volunteer gains is great for the volunteer, it can become pretty dicey for the sponsoring vet in a number of ways.

The more the "intern" is allowed to do, the riskier the experience and the more likely the doctor or his practice may be called upon to answer for negligence.

Lawsuits and workers' compensation

As I have explained before, workers'-compensation laws amount to a trade-off for the benefit of workers and employers. In exchange for protection against lawsuits, businesses are required to insure all workers against on-the-job injuries. This protects the employer against large negligence verdicts and assures that all injured employees have a means to get medical treatment for work-related injuries.

But exactly who is covered by workers' compensation? Remember that volunteers do not get paid, so the risk associated with their efforts in the workplace are not counted in calculating the insurance premiums paid by the clinic where they volunteer.

Therefore, if a hapless teenager is mangled by a pet at the veterinary clinic, there may be serious resistance by the workers'- compensation carrier to cover the injury.

Many states do allow in their workers'-compensation laws for the participation of volunteers in the workplace, but there may be limitations on the amount of animal contact they may have and the type of work they may be permitted to do. These limitations should be reviewed with the insurance agent. If the agent isn't rock-solid sure (fairly likely), a coverage explanation in writing should be obtained.

Reasonable hours and tasks

In the past, a student volunteer was an unpaid assistant who was happy to jump in and do menial tasks in exchange for spending time in the presence of a veterinarian and his staff. Today, each volunteer brings his or her own agenda and personality baggage.

In some instances, the attitude is, "If I'm not getting paid, I plan to stand around and ask questions; don't be asking me to do any work." In other cases, the volunteer will do work but after a few weeks the practice owner will get a call from the parents, letting Doc know that they have learned from some Web site that their son or daughter should be getting compensated.

Then there are the summer volunteers who get placed on the payroll for safety's sake and still expect to stand around and watch all day.

Realistically, the best course for summer high-school helpers would be to follow one of these two routes: