What Obligations Does a Church Have to Insure Volunteers?

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Volunteers often form the backbone of a church’s operations. They can play an important role in everything from minor maintenance to bookkeeping. They should also be a significant consideration for church leaders as they examine potential sources of risk. In addition to ensuring that volunteers are properly vetted, churches also need to include them in their insurance coverage.

Injury is the chief concern whenever volunteers do work for a church. Personal injury cases are notoriously expensive affairs, with damages capturing much more than just medical bills. If a church lacks adequate insurance it can find itself directly responsible for significant costs.

Under California law a volunteer is not an “employee” for workers’ compensation purposes. Cal. Labor Code § 3352(i). “Volunteers” are people who work without pay, other than meals, transportation, lodging, or reimbursement for expenses. This means that, by default, a church is not required to carry workers’ compensation insurance for its volunteers. A church’s board can make an affirmative decision to treat volunteers as employees for workers’ comp purposes.

Workers’ compensation coverage can be expensive, but by opting to provide it to volunteers a church can protect itself from liability in many circumstances. California’s workers’ compensation program is a “no fault” system, which means that a covered worker is entitled to coverage regardless of who was to blame for the injury. In exchange, volunteers can’t sue the church for personal injury except under limited circumstances.

Those “limited circumstances” should not go unexamined in the course of evaluating a church’s insurance needs. If a volunteer’s injury is the result of a deliberate action by a church employee or another volunteer, the church may still face liability that workers’ compensation will not cover. An insurance agent can describe the exceptions to its policy in detail.

The Church Law Center of California counsels religious and secular nonprofits on organizational and governance matters. We help clients evaluate their insurance needs and manage risk. Call us today at (949) 689-0437 or reach out to us through our contact page.

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