Many students at UNC-Charlotte are interested in supporting their community in civic, religious, or charitable ways through volunteering. While this desire to give and support is generally a wonderful thing, international students on the F-1 and J-1 visa programs need to be aware of some key differences between volunteering and unpaid employment before getting involved, in order to avoid possible violations of U.S. Department of Labor or U.S. Federal visa and immigration laws and regulations.
What is the difference between an employee and a volunteer?
A common misconception is that the only difference is that employees are paid, whereas volunteers are not. However, simply being an unpaid worker does not necessarily mean that you are a true volunteer.
What then, is a volunteer? According to the U.S. Department of Labor, a volunteer is an “individual who performs service… for civic, charitable, or humanitarian reasons, without promise, expectation or receipt of compensation for services rendered.” In addition, a volunteer cannot displace a genuine employee or take place when the employer might otherwise have hired someone. This means that you cannot “work for free” in a position that normally would be paid. Again, volunteer services are those performed for a public service, religious or humanitarian objective. Examples of volunteer work could include: serving lunch at a homeless shelter, walking dogs at the animal shelter, organizing a youth group trip for a church, building a house for Habitat for Humanity, etc.
F-1 and J-1 students are permitted to volunteer without work authorization if their activities meet the definition of volunteering above.
Paid (or Unpaid) Employment
To contrast, most other work is considered employment, and F-1 and J-1 students must have appropriate work authorization to undertake such activities, whether they will be paid or not.
The U.S. Department of Labor is concerned both with the protection of jobs for United States citizens and with the prevention of exploitation of workers. They have created laws to ensure that employment that should be paid is not done for free. While both you and the employer may be happy with an unpaid arrangement (for example, you may be eager to work even on an unpaid basis in a lab in order to gain job experience), this may be considered an unfair arrangement in cases where the work is normally performed by a paid person and both the employer and the employee are benefiting from the employment. Visa and immigration regulations are one way that the U.S. government controls employment to ensure that the country's goals are accomplished in a safe and orderly way.
F-1 and J-1 students need work authorization from the ISSO to undertake paid or unpaid employment. The type of employment authorization (e.g. CPT, OPT, on-campus employment etc.) needed will largely depend on eligiblity and the details of the specific employment opportunity.
Unpaid Employment While on OPT
Students on 12 month OPT may undertake unpaid employment, as long as the work 1) relates to the student's field of study and 2) does not violate any U.S. Department of Labor laws. OPT students should check with their unpaid employer's Human Resources office to make sure that the on-boarding process is done in accordance with all laws and policies, in addition to following all OPT regulations.
The question OPT students should ask is not "What is allowed on OPT?," which is but one small part of the web of laws and regulations governing employment in the U.S., but rather, "Is this really the best path for me, given my future plans?" We advise students to carefully weigh the short-term benefits of stopping one's OPT unemployment clock using unpaid employment with the long-term impacts, which could include problems in future H1-B and green card applications. All it takes is one USCIS officer in a green card interview to interpret unpaid employment on a resume as a violation (whether correctly or not--officers have discretion) to undo years' worth of hard work and planning for a life in the U.S..
Remember that any off-campus employment, whether paid or unpaid, for F-1 or J-1 students must be authorized prior to starting the employment. Without proper work authorization, working off-campus would be considered a violation of your F-1 or J-1 requirements. The consequences could include: loss of legal immigration status in the U.S., possible deportation by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and great difficulty in any future attempts to acquire a visa to enter the U.S.
Students who are not sure whether an opportunity is true volunteering or actually unpaid labor are advised to check with the ISSO prior to undertaking the activity.