The Canada Student Service Grant (CSSG) is a program established by the federal government that, along with the Canada Emergency Student Benefit, aims to assist students during the COVID economy. Under the CSSG, eligible post-secondary students who ‘volunteer’ with a participating charity or not-for-profit organization will receive $1,000 for every 100 hours of volunteering, up to $5,000.
In other words, a student will earn up to $10 per hour of service, which is less than the minimum wages in all of Canada’s provinces and territories (which range from $11.32 to $15 per hour). Is this legal?
Ontario’s Minimum Wage Framework
In Ontario, the Employment Standards Act provides that most ‘employees’ are entitled to the minimum wage (currently $14 per hour for most workers). There are, however, some notable exceptions. Students in training for certain professions (law, dentistry, engineering, etc.) do not have to be paid the minimum wage. Nor do employers need to pay the minimum wage to: students employed in a recreational program operated by a charity, students employed to instruct or supervise children, or students employed at a camp for children.
Additionally, some readers may recall that a separate minimum wage exists for students in Ontario (currently $13.15). That minimum wage, though, only applies to students under the age of 18 who work less than 28 hours per week. That would not capture most students who are eligible for the CSSG. In any event, the CSSG provides less remuneration than even the Ontario student minimum wage.
The CSSG and organizations participating in the program, seemingly, are relying not on the above exceptions but rather the category of ‘volunteer’ to justify its position that participating students need not be paid the minimum wage.
‘Volunteer’ vs. ‘Employee’ in Ontario
Volunteers are not covered by the Employment Standards Act in Ontario, and need not be paid the minimum wage. But that does not mean that an employer can evade its obligations under the Act by classifying anyone as a volunteer. Only a ‘true volunteer’ is excluded from the protections of the Act.
What is a ‘true volunteer’? In Ontario, the fact that a person is not being paid wages is not determinative. Nor is it determinative that an individual is only paid an honorarium (or, for that matter, a grant). Rather, other factors have been used to determine whether a worker is a volunteer, including:
- the extent to which the person performing the services views the arrangement as being in pursuit of their livelihood;
- the extent to which the person receiving the services gets a benefit from those services;
- the extent to which the person performing the services is integrated into the organization to which they are giving services;
- how the arrangement was initiated;
- whether there was a power imbalance between the parties in structuring the arrangement.
These factors were developed in cases that dealt with unpaid internships. Generally, unpaid internships are not allowed in Ontario, with certain limited exceptions.
With this in mind, are students who participate in the CSSG program ‘true volunteers’, or could they be employees who are entitled to the minimum wage? On the one hand, just because a student is receiving a grant does not mean they are an employee. On the other hand, if a participating student views the program as a means to make a livelihood during a time that fewer summer jobs are available, they may be able to argue that they are not a ‘true volunteer.’
Organizations participating in the CSSG do run the risk that they may be liable for payment of the minimum wage if a complaint is made. Ultimately, the determination of employee status will likely be context-specific. That is, whether a student is an employee will depend on the particular nature of the relationship between the student and the organization receiving services.
Minimum wages play an important function in workplace relationships. As a society, we have collectively determined that an employer should not be able to take advantage of individuals in desperate economic situations by paying a wage below a legislated standard.
Volunteerism, on the other hand, is generally seen as a reasonable exception to that position, where an individual freely and without economic pressures decides to provide their labour to an organization that they support. However, when a person accepts substandard compensation because it is their only option in difficult economic times, a reasonable doubt may arise as to whether that can truly be characterized as volunteering.