The plaintiffs, Kelly Hallisey of Nassau County, New York, and Brian Williams of Dallas, allege that AOL violated the Fair Labor Standards Act by using volunteers to perform work for the company. The federal law mandates that a minimum wage be paid to employees. The lawsuit was first reported by the New York Times.
AOL Community Leaders are volunteers who perform a number of functions, including chat room monitoring and upholding the company's terms of service agreement. Volunteers have to apply for a position and, if accepted, sign an agreement to commit three to four hours of work per week. However, the volunteers who filed the lawsuit, and others who have filed complaints with the Labor Department, believe they should be financially compensated for their role.
"We are tired of seeing others, like ourselves, being treated like employees of America Online," read a notice on Observers.net, a site created by former AOL volunteers that has become the rallying point for action against the company.
"We believe that AOL treats its volunteer staff as a paid staff, forcing timecards, scheduled shifts, reports, and minimum hours onto these remote staff individuals," it continued.
AOL would not comment specifically on the lawsuit. "We have not seen the complaint," said Ann Brackbill, an AOL spokeswoman. "But the Community Leader program reflects industry practices. Community Leaders are volunteers, and the company complies with the law."
Community leaders, sometimes called "guides," are common on the Internet. Many sites, such as GeoCities and iVillage, use a network of volunteers to help users with any questions or problems on their sites. Some companies, such as About.com (formerly the Mining Company), compensate guides with a cut of ad revenue or stock options.
AOL could have to pay up to $20 million if all current and former volunteers jump on the bandwagon and the suit is successful, the Times estimated.
Bloomberg contributed to this report