Most of the 30 volunteers who work at the 130-bed, for-profit East Cooper Medical Center spend their days assisting surgical patients — the scope of their duties extending far beyond those of candy stripers, baby cuddlers, and gift shop clerks.
In fact, one-third of the volunteers at the Tenet Healthcare-owned hospital are retired nurses who check people in for surgery or escort patients to a preoperative room, said Jan Ledbetter, president of the hospital’s nonprofit Volunteer Services Organization. Others relay important information from hospital staffers to expectant families. “They’re kept extremely busy,” Ledbetter said. “We need to have four of those volunteers a day.”
At hospitals across the U.S., volunteers play an integral role. So much so that when volunteers were barred from East Cooper at the beginning of the covid-19 pandemic, staff nurses assumed the volunteers’ duties in the surgical waiting room. Like paid employees, hospital volunteers typically face mandatory vaccine requirements, background checks, and patient privacy training. And their duties often entail working in regular shifts.
At HCA Healthcare, the world’s largest for-profit hospital system, volunteers include aspiring medical providers who work in patient rooms, in labs, and in wound care units, according to the company’s magazine.
Over centuries, leaning on volunteers in medicine has become so embedded in hospital culture that studies show they yield meaningful cost savings and can improve patient satisfaction — seemingly a win-win for hospital systems and the public.
Except, there’s a catch.
The U.S. health system benefits from potentially more than $5 billion in free volunteer labor annually, a KHN analysis of data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Independent Sector found. Yet some labor experts argue that using hospital volunteers, particularly at for-profit institutions, provides an opportunity for facilities to run afoul of federal rules, create exploitative arrangements, and deprive employees of paid work amid a larger fight for fair wages.
The federal government instructs that any person performing a task of “consequential economic benefit” for a for-profit entity is entitled to wages and overtime pay. That means profit-generating businesses, like banks and grocery stores, must pay for labor. A Chick-fil-A franchise in North Carolina was recently found guilty of violating minimum wage laws after paying people in meal vouchers instead of wages to direct traffic, according to a Department of Labor citation.
Still, volunteer labor at for-profit hospitals is commonplace and unchecked.
“The rules are pretty clear, and yet it happens all the time,” said Marcia McCormick, a lawyer who co-directs the Wefel Center for Employment Law at Saint Louis University. “It’s a confusing state of affairs.”
In a statement, HCA spokesperson Harlow Sumerford said coordinators oversee hospital volunteers to ensure they are participating in appropriate activities, such as greeting and assisting visitors. Tenet Health spokesperson Valerie Burrow did not respond to a question about how the company ensures that its volunteer activities comply with federal labor laws.
Ben Teicher, a spokesperson for the American Hospital Association, whose members include more than 6,000 nonprofit, for-profit, and government hospitals, did not respond to a question about whether