Understanding the difference between what constitutes a volunteer position and what is employment is very important for our international visitors. Volunteering and employment overlap when it comes to immigration and labor laws. The OIS does not want to deter you from participating in volunteer opportunities but we want to make sure that you understand the differences between what is a volunteer opportunity and what is considered work. Maintaining your immigration status is important to our office, but remember, it is your immigration status. The Fair Labor Standards Act Advisor states that “Individuals who volunteer or donate their services, usually on a part-time basis, for public service, religious or humanitarian objectives, not as employees and without contemplation of pay, are not considered employees of the religious, charitable or similar non-profit organizations that receive their service”.
To summarize, volunteering refers to donating time with an organization whose primary purpose is civic, charitable or humanitarian in nature, without promise, expectation or receipt of any type of compensation for services rendered. It is typically not related to one’s program/major/field of study.
Just a few volunteering examples:
- At your place of worship, you participate in feeding the homeless.
- You read to children in the hospital.
- You play chess and engage in conversation with senior citizens at a senior community center/nursing homes.
- You help to build homes with Habitat for Humanity.
Any academic student who holds F or J status and works without having the proper work authorization will be jeopardizing his or herimmigration status (including any dependents).
If you are looking at pursuing an unpaid internship, you should read the U.S. Department of Labor’s definition of unpaid internship. There are ways that you could obtain work authorization. Students who hold F status should review our office’s information on employment options, even for unpaid internships.
If a department or Principal Investigator (PI) wants you to volunteer, please reach out to our office prior to engaging in the activity and make sure the department is familiar with the institution’s non-employee policy, as it clearly defines volunteering. Just because an opportunity is unpaid, or if you agree to work for free, this does not mean that it is volunteering. If individuals are typically paid for that position, and you are not getting paid, this could be a violation of labor laws, and can also jeopardize your immigration status.
One definition of employee is included in the immigration regulations 8 CFR 274a.1(c): “An individual who provides services or labor for an employer for wages or other remuneration.” The term “remuneration” is very broad in definition and could include housing, gifts, gift cards, non-monetary benefits, etc. During check-in sessions, your International Services Representative discusses work authorization with each international visitor. “Any unauthorized employment by a nonimmigrant constitutes a failure to maintain status…” according to U.S. immigration regulations, 8 Code of Federal Regulations 214.1(e). This regulation is applicable to all over our international visitors.
Just a few employment examples:
- You receive a paycheck.
- You receive a one-time payment.
- In exchange for services, you receive room and board.
There are many situations that fall into a gray area. Again, when in doubt, please contact your International Services Representative to schedule an appointment to discuss your case. For complicated questions, we will refer you to an immigration attorney who is familiar with employment law.
Special note for those individuals who are will be holding F-1 student status, not all of the academic programs offer financial aid (such as covering tuition and paying a stipend). If your academic program does not provide aid, you will be responsible for funding your program of study. Also, there are limited job opportunities on campus and those in F-1 student status should not expect to rely on any funding.