Thank you for your question.
Wisconsin law requires that an employee must be paid for each and every hour worked. It further provides that non-exempt employees are paid overtime for work done after 40 hours of work each week. The law does not prohibit an employer from allowing employees to work in as volunteers in an unpaid capacity. Your employer is simply refusing to allow you to work as a volunteer, presumably in an effort to avoid any sort of ambiguity as to whether it is requiring you to work unpaid.
Of course, your employer is not required to do this, but is doing it to protect their own interests and avoid liability. It is perfectly legal for you to work as a volunteer, but what if you turned around later and claimed that you were coerced into working as a volunteer or were simply being forced to work without pay. This would result in major liability for the employer, which is why they are saying the labor laws prevent them from allowing you to do this.
From a legal standpoint, if I were the employer's lawyer, I would likely advise them to do the same thing.
What if I wrote a detailed proposal that allows me to volunteer for so many hours per week? If I sign and date such a thing, and have my employer sign and date it, wouldn't this protect both of us from any sort of ambiguity?
Arguably it would protect you and the employer from the ambiguity, although I could envision a scenario where you could turn around and claim that you were forced to continue on in a volunatary capacity as a requirement to keep your job.
I know that's a very cynical thing to say, but it is possible and while a person making such a claim would probably not win the claim in court, it exposes the employer to liability. However, this is a very strict and cynical approach. It would be perfectly legitimate to make such a proposal and in the end would be up to your employer to accept it or not accept it.
Well I do thank you very much for your advice. While it doesn't actually solve my issue, it does give me more incite into my employers side. It kind of saddens me that the world has changed so much that we have to think cynically to "protect" ourselves. Gone are the days of "taking a man at his word" and a "handshake is as good as a signature."
Again, thank you for the incite, I do appreciate it.
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