Bill targets legal snag for young volunteers

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Capital News Service
LANSING – A Mid-Michigan lawmaker wants to ensure that nonprofit organizations won’t violate state labor law when they use youth volunteers.
As a member of the State Board for Habitat for Humanity, Rep. Paul DeWeese, R-Williamston, learned that Habitat and similar nonprofit housing organizations in Michigan might be violating the current youth-employment law.
Attorneys for the organization warned Habitat officials that some affiliates might be breaking the law by permitting young volunteers to work on Habitat housing construction sites. A section of the law now prohibits youths under age 18 from engaging in work considered hazardous. DeWeese has introduced a bill to revise the present restriction.
“The legislation allows Habitat to strengthen their mission of providing youth with opportunities to express their talents in the benefit of others,” DeWeese said.
The House bill would amend the law to allow youths to work on construction sites as unpaid volunteers, as long as the work is performed under adult supervision. The measure has cleared the House and is awaiting consideration in the Senate.
DeWeese said because the current law is unclear, many Habitat affiliates have now adopted rules barring minors from volunteering at their work sites to avoid the perception of non-compliance.
“Habitat began to retain legal counsel for what they feared might be construed as illegal,” DeWeese said. “Some have just said we’ll be cautious so we won’t be sued.”
But not all affiliates have chosen to err on the side of caution. According to Ken Bensen, regional president of Michigan Habitat for Humanity, others have chosen to, “allow youth to work on their projects in violation of the law.”
Bensen called the measure sponsored by DeWeese welcome news. “I want Habitat to always operate within the law. I do not want to be part of a group that breaks the law in the performance of its mission,” he said.
Opinion on how to use youth volunteers has varied among affiliates statewide. While most continue to allow youth volunteers on their construction sites, some have become cautious.
“We are very careful about the youth we use on our sites,” said Denise Paquette, executive director of Habitat for Humanity-Lansing. “They are usually children of the applicants or from the church group helping us to build the houses.”
Paquette said the Lansing affiliate’s policy leaves recruitment of youth volunteers to the 30 or more area churches the organization works with. She also supports the legislation to amend the law. “It would give us all a level of comfort about recruiting youth volunteers,” she said.
Confusion about the law has prompted the Grand Rapids-area affiliate to adopt stringent guidelines regarding the ratio between volunteers and adult supervisors. Pam Doty-Nation, executive director of Habitat for Humanity-Kent County, said the group adheres to a strict 1 to 3 ratio of adults to youth volunteers. Volunteers are also not allowed to do ladder work, dry-walling or use power tools.
“While we haven’t put a hold on minor volunteer activities, we do emphasize safeguards through maintaining proper ratios between adults and volunteers at all times,” she said.
But for other affiliates the law has had little impact. Directors of the Kalamazoo Valley and Saginaw locations said they anticipate no changes in their volunteer activities.
“The issue hasn’t prompted any major changes regarding our youth volunteers,” said Brent Hepp, executive director of Kalamazoo Valley Habitat. “We’re still using youth volunteers between the ages of 14 and 18 years, at a ratio of about 1 adult to 4 volunteers. Like everyone we’re waiting to see how it all shakes out.”
Hepp said volunteer activities have always been restricted to painting, landscaping, cleanup and possibly some staining work. Hepp also said the law’s impact has been more evident on homebuyer volunteers who wish to bring their older children to the work sites, cutting down on valuable family time.
John Perna, executive director of the Saginaw Habitat, also reported no change in volunteer work activities. “Anything they feel capable of doing, including shingling work on shallow roofs, use of power tools is allowed, if properly supervised and trained by adults,” Perna said.
But Perna said the Saginaw location does intend to cut back on the numbers of volunteers allowed on site each summer, until the DeWeese legislation is passed.
“We would really like for it to be clarified, Perna said. “Habitat is such a great place, especially for the youth volunteers. We have to be safe, but what I fear is that we’re more afraid of being sued than giving our children opportunities.” Each Habitat affiliate is an autonomous unit with the authority to decide on the issue independent of recommendations from Habitat International.
Don Wotruba, director of the Michigan Association of School Boards, said he is unaware of any Michigan school districts violating the law. He said it’s not unusual for districts to sponsor vocational classes that many times do send students to construction sites like those belonging to Habitat for hands-on training. “There’s no easy answer,” he said.
Dick Place, crew leader for the Lansing affiliate, said safety is always the first priority. “With the kids, they just have to be monitored daily. The adults do that to the best of their ability.”
© 2002, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism

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