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It's important to understand the difference between a volunteer and an employee. Some think the only difference is that an employee gets paid and a volunteer does not, but that is not true. Unpaid work can still be considered employment.

Whether the Department of Labor (DOL) considers you an employee or a volunteer is based upon several factors and focuses on the relationship between the employer and potential employee.

According to the DOL Fact Sheet:

Individuals may volunteer time to religious, charitable, civic, humanitarian, or similar non-profit organizations as a public service and not be covered by the FLSA. Individuals generally may not, however, volunteer in commercial activities run by a non-profit organization such as a gift shop. A volunteer generally will not be considered an employee for FLSA purposes if the individual volunteers freely for public service, religious or humanitarian objectives, and without contemplation or receipt of compensation. Typically, such volunteers serve on a part-time basis and do not displace regular employed workers or perform work that would otherwise be performed by regular employees.

F-1 and J-1 students are permitted to perform volunteer work that meets the DOL criteria without any prior authorization. Some examples include volunteering to hand out blankets at a homeless shelter, visit the elderly in a nursing home, or fold bandages for the Red Cross.

If you are unsure whether an opportunity qualifies as volunteer work, ISSS recommends you reference the Department of Labor website and consult with an immigration attorney and a labor attorney. The link here will guide you to a list of attorneys in the state of Illinois that specialize in labor and employment law. You can find links here to help you find an experienced immigration attorney. If the "volunteer" work you performed is later deemed by U.S. labor laws to constitute employment, then you would have worked without employment authorization. Unauthorized employment can impact your legal status and future visa applications and your employer could be at risk for substantial fines.

If the volunteer opportunity is through ISU, then you should consult Human Resources prior to performing any volunteer work.