Restaurant Can Decline to Pay Workers if They Are Church Volunteers, Says Appeals Court

Angley

Serving God by serving mashed potatoes

According to TV evangelist Rev. Ernest Angley, the Cathedral Buffet is “the Lord’s buffet,” and members of his church, Grace Cathedral, are expected to volunteer when Rev. Angley asks. Although the church’s restaurant had paid employees, it was sometimes short-staffed and looked to parishioners to help — as unpaid volunteers. Rev. Angley has been controversial in the past (google “Rev Angley never actually touched his …”), but this controversy is SFW.

The Department of Labor sued the church, claiming that the volunteers were doing the same work as the restaurant’s employees, and therefore they had to be paid like employees. The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) requires at least a minimum wage.

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, however, has sided with Rev. Angley. The Court ruled that if workers do not expect to get paid, they are volunteers and not employees, which means they are not covered by the FLSA.

There is one exception, though. If someone is coerced to work for free, the volunteer rule does not apply. The Court noted that when the restaurant was short-staffed, Rev. Angley would “ask” for volunteers.

But here’s what we mean by “ask”: He would instruct churchgoers that “[e]very time you say no, you are closing the door on God.” He suggested that church members who repeatedly refused to volunteer at the restaurant were at risk of “blaspheming against the Holy Ghost,” which was an unforgivable sin in the church’s doctrine.

Is that coercion?

Yes, maybe, but it’s not the kind of coercion covered under the law. The Court ruled that the coercion exception applies only to economic coercion, not spiritual coercion. To summarize:

  • If working for free is required by your powerful boss, that’s economic coercion. Illegal.
  • But if working for free is required by a higher power, that’s spiritual coercion. Not illegal.

The Court of Appeals stressed religious freedom. If church member volunteers have no expectation of being paid when working for a church-run enterprise, they are volunteers and not employees. The expectation of compensation “is a threshold inquiry that must be satisfied before” applying the FLSA.

The decision reversed a judgment of nearly $400,000 against the church.

Trip advisor reviews of the Cathedral Buffet, as expected, are hilarious, with Duane H of Stow describing the buffet as “akin to nursing home food.” Hooliganmom accused the mashed potatoes of being “fake” and says she preferred her high school cafeteria.

Unfortunately for curiosity seekers (or volunteers) living near Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, the buffet is now permanently closed.

© 2018 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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