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Is the AODA standard for employment applicable to volunteers? 

accessibility-standards-of-employmentVolunteers are crucial to many  not-for-profit and public organizations.  All not-for-profits have volunteers – even if it is just at the Board of Director level.  There is widespread awareness that the training standards for the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) apply to both volunteers and staff in the organization.  But what about the accessibility standard for employment? Is it applicable to volunteers?  This article outlines that while the AODA employment standard may not explicitly require organizations to take the same approach with volunteers, forward thinking organizations will ensure that the principals and procedures of the AODA  standards for employment are also followed in their volunteer management program.

Employees vs volunteers

The employment standard of the AODA exists to help make hiring and employee support practices more accessible.  It addresses recruitment, assessment, selection, informing employees of support, workplace emergency response information, documented individual accommodation plans, performance management and more.

Volunteers are distinct from employees and are not covered by the Employment Standards Act.  So why should employers treat the AODA employment standard as if it is applicable to volunteers?

Expanded definition of the worker in many legislative contexts

There are several examples of legislative contexts in which the definition of a worker is more broadly applied.  One recent example is the Occupational Health and Safety Act’s expanded definition of a worker to apply to unpaid co-op students, certain other learners and trainees participating in a work placement in Ontario, effective Nov 20, 2014.  It is interesting to note that pure volunteers are excluded.

Another example of the expanded definition of a worker is found in the Ontario Human Rights Code.  Here is a direct excerpt from the OHRC website. 

Volunteers and unpaid workers:  In many cases, access to and the experience gained from volunteer opportunities are key parts of a strategy to get paid employment for people with disabilities, for caregivers who have been out of the workforce and for other people who are underemployed due to other Code grounds, such as age and race. Volunteer work is also a crucial way for newcomers to get the experience they need to overcome a common discriminatory obstacle: requiring “Canadian work experience.”

The Code does not refer specifically to volunteers, but the Commission takes the position that the phrase “equal treatment with respect to employment” in section 5 can be interpreted to protect anyone in a work-like context. This includes volunteer services and people who work without a salary to gain experience, such as people on a practicum or who are being mentored…. While there have been no Ontario decisions on these issues, some British Columbia decisions found that the province’s human rights law applied to discrimination against a volunteer, under the areas of employment and services.

Volunteering as pathway to employment for students

Volunteerism is required for high school students who must complete 40 hours of volunteer work before graduation.  Many organizations make their summer hiring decisions from a pool of student volunteers within their organization.  In our current context there is tough competition among students for “premium” volunteer placements that may help them get the experience needed for medical school applications, future jobs and university applications.  A volunteer process that denies similar opportunities to volunteers who need accommodation would likely infringe on the Code.

Volunteer reference guide

Volunteer Canada has shared a guide for organizations that use volunteers and are committed to a volunteer engagement strategy.  The 23 page downloadable guide sets out values, guiding principles and standards of practice related to volunteers.

It is just the right thing to do

As a not-for-profit organization you are in some way meeting a need in your community.  If you are ignoring the issue of accessibility you are not serving your organization or the community you are in.  As an organization you will have to deal with each case of accommodation on an individual basis – ensuring the safety and success of your staff and the cause or people they serve.

As the culture of your organization grows its capacity and flexibility for accommodation to become an organization that says yes; this will strengthen the heart of your organization to be able to accomplish more than you thought possible!

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Marcia Scheffler

Human Resources Generalist at Wawel Villa
Marcia Scheffler, M.A., CHRP Candidate is a Human Resources Generalist with M.A. working full-time as a Senior HR Officer. She is interested in the intersection of human resources theory and current best practices in HR. Read more
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