At first glance, church members volunteering at their parish’s buffet restaurant seems like it’s on the up and up. But when it’s discovered that these volunteers were coerced and threatened with religious consequences, the DOL’s going to get involved. 

Worried about ‘failing God’

Grace Cathedral Church in Akron, OH owned and operated a restaurant called Cathedral Buffet. While the restaurant had a few employees, the church mostly relied on volunteers to keep it running.

But its hellish volunteer recruiting methods quite literally put the fear of God in Grace Cathedral churchgoers.

The church’s reverend referred to the restaurant as “The Lord’s Buffet,” and told people that every time they didn’t volunteer, they were “closing the door on God.”

When managers of the restaurant contacted volunteers asking them to work a shift, they told the churchgoers that the reverend would find out if they refused to work.

Many volunteers agreed to shifts, worried they’d be “failing God” if they didn’t.

DOL: ‘Violation of FLSA’

The DOL filed a lawsuit against Cathedral Buffet, stating that these practices were a clear violation of the FLSA.

The restaurant heavily relied on its volunteers, even admitting it used them to “save money.” It also had them do the tasks of regular employees, such as washing dishes, serving customers and manning the register. The DOL pointed out that the church had a “high level of control” over the volunteers as well.

The DOL said that not paying these volunteers violated the minimum wage provision of the FLSA, since they were doing the work of paid employees. A judge agreed, and ordered Cathedral Buffet to pay almost $400,000 in back wages and liquidated damages.

Not so fast …

But recently, the 6th Circuit reversed this decision, letting the restaurant off the hook.

The circuit court said that these volunteers shouldn’t have been paid as employees, because they had no “expectation of compensation.” Since the volunteers knew their work would be for free, there was no FLSA violation, the 6th Circuit said.

When the “spiritual coercion” issue was brought up, the circuit court said this isn’t prohibited by the FLSA. There are no guidelines regulating the circumstances under which someone volunteers for a job.

For the time being, it looks like Cathedral Buffet won’t be paying for its sins, but the managers still might want to head to confession.

Cite: Acosta v. Cathedral Buffet, Inc., U.S. Crt. of App. 6th Cir., No. 17-3427, 4/16/18.

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