We cannot blame employers for feeling bewildered from time to time, especially in the charity sector, when trying to decide the employment status of those who work for them. Especially if they are a mix of volunteer and worker.

And, if ever a case demonstrated the need to take professional advice, then Groom v Maritime and Coastguard Agency was one.

The Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) examined whether a volunteer within the Coastal Rescue Service could be classified as a “worker” for the purposes of employment rights.

Background

The dispute centred on a seemingly simple question – did Mr Groom, a Coastal Rescue Officer (CRO), have the right to be accompanied at a disciplinary hearing? This is a right typically reserved for “workers” – it was crucial as he had been denied the right, and was thus claiming unfair dismissal, which he could not generally do as a volunteer.

To establish his status as a worker, Mr Groom needed to show he was engaged under either a contract of employment or an agreement where he personally performed work or services for another party for which he was getting paid.

Mr Groom was described as a volunteer, and was asked to operate under a Volunteer Handbook. Despite the absence of a written contract of employment, he received remuneration for certain activities, with these earnings documented via payslips and a P60 form.

EAT’s Findings

The EAT’s decision emphasised several key points:

  • The EAT clarified that being a volunteer does not automatically mean that in certain circumstances they cannot be a worker as well. The relationships can overlap depending on the specifics of the engagement.
  • The fact that he had to claim his remuneration, as opposed to receiving it automatically, and that some CROs did not claim remuneration, was deemed irrelevant. The right to claim remuneration was the critical factor.
  • When Mr Groom performed activities for which he was paid, his work was controlled by the organisation, indicating an implied contract. Therefore, during these activities, Mr Groom was considered a “worker.” Therefore, the Respondent (the employer) was found to have breached his statutory right to be accompanied at a disciplinary meeting.

Limitations of the Decision

While a decision at appeal carries great weight in the law, this was a very limited decision. The EAT did not address several important questions:

  • Was he a worker during activities that did not attract remuneration?
  • Was there an over-arching worker contract that governed his engagement?
  • It did not establish that volunteers are always workers.

Implications and Action Points

This case underlines the complexities involved in determining employment status, and the necessity for careful consideration of each case’s specifics. Here are some practical steps for organisations to consider:

  • Review Volunteer Agreements: Ensure that all volunteer agreements clearly outline the nature of the relationship, and any conditions related to remuneration or expenses.
  • Document Remuneration Practices: Maintain clear records of any payments or remuneration provided to volunteers to avoid ambiguity about their status.
  • Training for HR and Managers: Equip HR professionals and Managers with the knowledge to distinguish between volunteers, workers and employees, particularly regarding rights and obligations.
  • Seek Professional Advice: When in doubt, seek proper expert advice to navigate the complexities of employment status, especially for roles that blur the lines between volunteer and worker.

Understanding the distinctions between various forms of engagement is crucial for maintaining compliance, and ensuring fair treatment within organisations. This case serves as a reminder of the importance of clarity and thoroughness in defining the different types of employment relationships that can happen and at times overlap.

 

 

The guidance provided in this article is just that – guidance. Before taking any action, make sure that you know what you are doing, or call an expert for specific advice.