The Volunteer Protection Act of 1997 (PL 105-19) defines volunteer work and liability. The goal is to promote volunteerism by limiting or eliminating a volunteer’s risk of tort liability when acting for a government entity.
Volunteers operating under signed volunteer service agreements are covered for liability through the NPS. Parks and programs must establish specific local-level liability policy and limits for all volunteer service agreements. This is especially important when engaging with the following categories of volunteers:
Volunteers using their living or non-living personal property
Artists (with regards to ownership of developed art)
The specific threshold should be documented in the volunteer service agreement.
Volunteers are considered “employee equivalent” for those legal purposes outlined in volunteer service agreements. Like employees, liability (within established limits of a park or program’s threshold) is covered while performing official duties; it is not restricted to park boundaries or NPS facilities. An explanation of these official duties as well as duty station location should be included in the volunteer service agreement. The NPS is self-insured, which means that the NPS assumes financial responsibility in case of an incident. For volunteers who are medical professionals, any claim of malpractice while performing official duties is also covered.
Like NPS employees, coverage is extended to “off the clock” time while the volunteer is on travel status. Some volunteers perform their service outside park physical boundaries and may be asked to stay overnight as part of their official duties, such as Trails and Rails (on Amtrak routes), National River and Trail systems, virtual volunteers, volunteers attending conferences, etc. As long as the volunteer’s work and duty station is specified in the volunteer service agreement, liability is extended to them in cases of workers' compensation and tort claims (within established thresholds).
Any group or individual receiving compensation from the NPS for their services (e.g., through a task agreement) is not a volunteer and is not provided liability coverage through the NPS. These participants must be covered for liability on their own or through their organization, not the NPS, as stipulated in the legal agreement between the NPS and the organization.
Individuals who are not performing work and are not under the direction of the NPS should not sign an OF 301a solely for the benefit of the individual “to get liability coverage.”
Volunteers and Federal Ethics Rules (Hatch Act)
While volunteers are not beholden to the same ethics laws and regulations that apply to federal employees, they are expected to maintain the professional and ethical standards of the workplace while acting in an official capacity or wearing a volunteer uniform (see Prohibited Volunteer Activities). Volunteers are also expected to comply with all standards of professional conduct that apply to the work the volunteer performs under a volunteer service agreement. The NPS may terminate the volunteer agreement for any reason, including a lapse in ethical conduct by the volunteer.
Volunteers and the Fair Labor Standards Act
According to the Department of Labor (DOL), the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) recognizes the generosity and public benefits of volunteering and allows individuals to freely volunteer for charitable and public purposes. A volunteer will not be considered an employee for FLSA purposes if the individual volunteers freely for public service and without contemplation or receipt of compensation.
Although the FLSA does not directly apply to volunteer activities, the child labor provisions under FLSA are designed to protect the educational opportunities of youth and prohibit their employment in jobs that are detrimental to their health and safety.
See DOL Fact Sheet #14A: Non-Profit Organizations and the Fair Labor Standards Act for more information.
Use of Government and Personal Equipment
The NPS should provide the government-owned equipment required to successfully complete the duties of a volunteer position.
If the NPS requires a volunteer to use their living or non-living personal equipment to perform their duties, then use of the property must be “incident to the employee's service, and possession of the property must be reasonable, useful, or appropriate under the circumstances” (see 451 DM 3). The volunteer service agreement must specifically identify the personal property involved and state that the volunteer is required to provide and use this equipment as part of their official duties.
Personal equipment may be recoverable if lost or damaged during use. Parks and programs are encouraged to establish a waiver of claim threshold that establishes a limit on the size of reimbursement claims that will be received. This must be discussed verbally with volunteers and included in their service description.
The DOI Departmental Manual sets out certain categories of items that are not recoverable, including clothing, motor vehicles used for commuting to and from volunteer service, small items of substantial value lost during transport, and items “mysteriously vanished.”
If a volunteer opts to use their personal equipment in lieu of available government-provided equipment and that property is lost, damaged, or destroyed during service, the NPS is not liable for the cost of that property, and the volunteer may not be reimbursed for the loss. A statement to this effect must be included in the volunteer service agreement and must specifically state the volunteer is not required to provide and use personal equipment as part of their official duties and will not be covered.
Federal Employee Status for Volunteers (16 USC 558 (c)) provides the authority for reimbursement for personal property that was lost, damaged, or destroyed while being used for official purposes for the NPS. For guidance on reimbursing recoverable property losses to a volunteer, consult with the park or program administrative officer.
Following Director’s Order #44: Personal Property Management (DO-44), volunteers may operate government-owned vehicles for official purposes. The volunteer must:
possess a valid state driver’s license or international driver’s document for the class of vehicle being operated,
be at least 18 years of age, and
have a safe driving record (see RM-50B, Section 6: Motor Vehicle Safety).
The operation of the vehicle must be required in writing as part of the volunteer service agreement (both checked on the OF301a and included in the service description). Volunteers required to use government vehicles should receive training in safe, ethical, and appropriate use. For additional guidance, consult with the fleet manager or similar for the park or program.
If international volunteers are required to operate government vehicles for official purposes, the park or program must contact the Department of Motor Vehicle Administration for the state(s) in which the volunteer will operate the vehicle to determine what is recognized as a valid operator’s license.
Director’s Order #44: Personal Property Management (DO-44) prohibits the use of a government vehicle for personal use. Prohibited personal use includes the use of a government vehicle to secure groceries when a volunteer is in a remote duty station with no personal vehicle. Individuals should never be signed up as volunteers for the sole purpose of riding in a government vehicle.
DO-44 contains additional guidelines related to the appropriate use of government vehicles.
Vehicle Use and Liability
No additional credentials beyond a valid driver’s license are necessary to operate passenger vehicles that accommodate fewer than 15 passengers. To operate any other government vehicle, the volunteer must show credentials verifying their qualifications and demonstrate proficiency in the operation of the vehicle. The operation of such a vehicle must be in the service description.
If a volunteer causes damage to a government vehicle through an act that is determined by the park’s or program’s review board to be simple negligence, the liability normally incurred by a government employee (including the requirement to pay a deductible) is not applicable. Volunteers are considered federal employees only for the purposes of liability and tort claims (workers’ compensation) and will not be required to pay for damage to a government vehicle resulting from an act determined to be simple negligence.
Benefits and Protection
Volunteers are members of the public. However, they are considered federal employees (or employee-equivalent) for the purposes of liability and tort claims (workers’ compensation). Some external volunteer organizations provide their own liability and tort claim coverage in which federal coverage becomes secondary. In the event of multiple and/or overlapping coverage, the order for claiming benefits should be addressed in local policy and the formal agreement established between the NPS and the external organization.
The acts that established volunteer benefits and protection are described below. The Volunteer Protection Act of 1997 (PL 105-19) provides protections to volunteers, nonprofit organizations, and governmental entities in lawsuits based on the activities of volunteers.
Federal Employees’ Compensation Act
Volunteer injuries, near-misses, exposures, and deaths must be reported in the Safety Management Information System (SMIS) by their park supervisor just as they would be for an NPS employee. However, a volunteer is not required to submit a workers’ compensation claim to the Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs (OWCP) if they would prefer to handle the injury through their private insurance. If they do opt to submit the claim, the VIP would go through the Employees’ Compensation Operations & Management Portal (ECOMP), and it will be handled by OWCP. OWCP may reject claims made by volunteers who were working outside the scope of their assigned duties (as outlined in their volunteer service agreement) at the time of the accident. See 5 USC 8101(1) (B) and 54 USC 102301.
Federal Tort Claims Act
Under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA), the United States is liable “for injury or loss of property, or personal injury or death caused by the negligent or wrongful act or omission of any employee of the Government while acting within the scope of his office or employment, under circumstances where the United States, if a private person, would be liable to the claimant in accordance with the law of the place where the act or omission occurred” (28 USC 1346(b)). This act only allows compensatory damages (for damages sustained, including pain and suffering) and not punitive damages (or damages intended to punish the defendant). Because volunteers are considered employees for the purpose of this act, they are offered the protection of the act for personal liability, as long as they are within the scope of their assigned responsibilities. See 28 USC 2671–2680 and 54 USC 102301.
FTCA and Medical Professionals
The protection afforded by the FTCA includes a claim for negligence for volunteers performing medical services within their scope of duties. The volunteer would have personal immunity for allegations of negligence and wrongful acts, and the claims would have to proceed against the US Government.
The FTCA is different from malpractice insurance. In the event a claim is raised against a medical professional, the FTCA would cover the individual. They would not need to rely on their personal malpractice insurance. FTCA coverage (and the fact that they are personally immune from suit) should be explained to volunteers for allegations arising from activities within the scope of their volunteer service agreements.
Military Personnel and Civilian Employee Claims Act of 1964
The Military Personnel and Civilian Employee Claims Act (MPCECA, 31 USC 3721) allows federal employees to recover for damage or loss of personal property incident to service. Under the Volunteers in the Parks Act, volunteers qualify for this purpose (see 54 USC 102301 and DO-7, Section 8.1). The claim may be allowed only if it is substantiated, the agency determines that possession of the property was reasonable or useful under the circumstances, and no part of the loss was caused by the claimant’s own negligence. There is a two-year statute of limitations. Volunteers may not claim items lost in quarters (at home) unless those quarters are assigned or provided in kind by the US Government. DOI policies cap the amount of the loss that can be compensated at $15,000 (451 DM 3).
The act covers volunteers’ living or non-living personal property (including virtual volunteers’ property) if the equipment was pre-approved for use and documented in the volunteer service agreement.
See Tort Talk: Protecting Your Visitors and Your Park for additional information.
The safety and health of volunteers is always of utmost priority. Volunteers must observe the same safety regulations, policies and procedures and use the same safety equipment and personal protective equipment as paid employees. Failure by the volunteer supervisor to provide appropriate safety training and personal protective equipment not only violates federal mandates but also increases the risk to the volunteer. It also may increase NPS exposure to potential violation notices of OSHA regulations, violate existing labor-management agreements, escalate the number of worker’s compensation claims, and heighten the potential of tort liability for supervisors’ acts of omission.
Volunteers should not perform work for which they are not qualified or have not been adequately trained, work that they do not feel comfortable doing or do not willingly agree to do, or work that is not part of the service description.
Job Hazard/Job Safety Analysis
The volunteer supervisor must use a job hazard analysis or job safety analysis (JHA or JSA) for all volunteer work assignments to determine the level of risk and appropriate mitigation. The JHA or JSA form is available from the designated safety officer for the park, region or program. The volunteer supervisor is responsible for evaluating the specific job, outlining the potential hazards/injury sources and identifying actions, procedures, and safety equipment to mitigate safety risks to the volunteer. Volunteers will be provided training on the JHA/JSA (s) prior to commencing work in the park or program. When the JHA/JSA indicates the need for specialized operational and/or safety training, the volunteer will not be allowed to perform the job until all training is completed, the supervisor understands the volunteer’s work capability, and the volunteer understands the job and its hazards.
Volunteers assigned to operate machinery or equipment (such as chainsaws, power shop tools, and specialized equipment or vehicles) must show documentation of proper training certifications and demonstrate proficiency in operating the equipment to the satisfaction of the responsible supervisor prior to use in their assigned task. All applicable state and federal age restrictions relating to the operation of machinery or equipment must be enforced.
Personal Protective Equipment
Certain volunteer positions might require volunteers to wear specific items of personal protective equipment. Required personal protective equipment should be listed in the service description.
Typically, personal protective equipment should be purchased directly by the volunteer program, although in some cases volunteers may be reimbursed for the cost. If placed in a work environment with occupational hazards in which personal protective equipment is required by OSHA standards, it must be provided at no cost to the volunteer. Volunteers must also complete any relevant OSHA-required training, and receive medical evaluations and medical surveillance as required, prior to performing work that requires the use of personal protective equipment.
Safety and Hazardous Duties
Volunteers may assist with certain limited law enforcement and visitor protection functions but must not be assigned duties that would place them in life-threatening situations, even as observers. Volunteers may not supervise but can participate in historic weapons firing demonstrations if they have received proper training (see RM-6 section on “Historic Weapons”). See Volunteer Activities for more information.
Any use of volunteers in jobs considered to be hazardous for federal pay purposes must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis and approved by the superintendent/manager. Volunteer supervisors should use a JHA or JSA for any questionable work assignments and consult with their safety officer if they question the appropriateness of a volunteer assignment for a specific duty.
Safeguarding Children, Youth, and Families
While engaging children, youth, and family volunteers, additional risk management procedures should be incorporated into the volunteer program or project activity and may include the following:
Conducting a safety risk assessment and obtaining concurrence from the park or program safety officer
Requiring that each child volunteer be closely supervised at all times to ensure the child is safe and that activities are performed in designated safe areas away from any potential hazards at all times
Establishing ratios for supervision depending on the age and activity
Providing adequate training for each child volunteer
Although federal youth employment provisions are not applicable to volunteers, volunteer managers should always check with state and local authorities concerning any safety and health protections applicable to youth. In addition, parks and programs are encouraged to consult with their regional youth program manager (if available) and to keep informed of appropriate state child labor regulations.
Equal Employment Opportunity
(see DO-7, § 9)
Federal Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) laws prohibit employment discrimination on the following bases:
Sex (including pregnancy, gender identity, and sexual orientation)
Age (40 or older)
As stated by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) "volunteers usually are not protected 'employees.' " However, as outlined by federal laws cited in DO-7, § 9, instances may occur when volunteers are treated like employees in regards to EEO matters. As such, were something to occur, your designated EEO office should be contacted to best determine what next steps are available to the volunteer.
Beyond the resources provided by the EEO, volunteers may reach out to the Ombuds for support determining available next steps, and visit the NPS Employee Wellness site (internal link) which specifies what agency support services are or are not available to volunteers.
Regardless of federal laws or agency resources, volunteers should be treated fairly and with respect. (DO-16E) states:
“The National Park Service (NPS) is committed to providing a workplace free of discrimination and harassment based on race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy and gender identity), sexual orientation, national origin, age, disability, family medical history (including genetic information), status as a parent, marital status, political affiliation, and one that is free from illegal retaliation. The NPS will not tolerate harassing conduct (of a sexual or non-sexual nature) against another NPS employee, intern, volunteer, contractor or other non-federal employee, or other member of the public. The NPS also will not tolerate reprisal or retaliation if employees report harassment or provide information related to such complaints.”
The NPS cannot correct harassing conduct if a supervisor, manager, or other NPS official does not become aware of it. Any volunteer who has been subjected to harassing conduct is encouraged to inform the person(s) responsible for the conduct it is unwelcome and offensive and request it cease. If the conduct continues, is severe, or if the volunteer is uncomfortable addressing the responsible person(s) about the conduct, the volunteer is encouraged to report the matter to:
The supervisor of the employee engaging in the misconduct or the volunteer supervisor if the alleged harasser is a volunteer
ANY NPS supervisor or any other NPS management official
An employee relations specialist (call the NPS human resources office)
To report fraud, waste, or mismanagement to DOI, use the OIG Hotline by calling 1-800-424-5081 or submitting a hotline complaint form online. You can also report allegations in person at locations across the country. Whistleblower protection laws exist to protect employees who fear or suffer reprisal for making a disclosure.
Law enforcement and non-NPS civil authorities
If a volunteer believes they are a victim of a criminal offense, they may contact local law enforcement, which will determine whether the offense requires other civil authorities to be notified.
While it is important that volunteers know how to report harassing conduct they may witness or experience, it is also important volunteers know they must refrain from harassing, bullying, intimidating, or behaving unprofessionally against other volunteers, employees, contractors, visitors, or anyone else in the park or program environment. Volunteers who do not behave appropriately may be terminated.
Uniforms and Appearance
(see DO-7, § 10)
The public must easily recognize volunteers by means of a visible distinction between paid employees and volunteers. Volunteers must not wear, or attempt to duplicate, any part of the official NPS uniform.
The NPS VIP Program official insignia was updated as of January 1, 2004. The new circular patch replaced the old arrowhead-shaped patch. Any remaining old volunteer patches may be kept by volunteers as mementos. They may not be worn on any current volunteer uniform or displayed in an inappropriate manner that would be considered unprofessional.
Volunteer patches, pins, and stickers are trademarked by the NPS and may not be sold. The volunteer insignia is available as either a patch (2.25-inch and 3-inch sizes) or sticker. The new digital file has two forms, with either a “flat” or a “carved” NPS Arrowhead in the center. Usage of the “carved” version is highly restricted.
Additional guidance on the VIP logo and use of the NPS Arrowhead is available:
Arrowhead Guidance for NPS Employees: Seeking Permission (internal link)
Each superintendent/manager will designate a standard volunteer uniform designed to meet particular needs and conditions. Where possible, volunteer uniforms should consist of off-the-rack, readily available items.
A park’s full volunteer uniform should include two items:
The volunteer insignia worn on the shirt and/or hat.
If the full-sized, 3-inch patch is used, it must be worn on the left shoulder (the same place as the NPS uniform patch) or on the left side of the chest.
If the smaller, 2.25-inch VIP patch is used, it is to be worn on the front of a cap or hat.
Embroidered emblems that are the same as the patch are also acceptable.
Alternatively, the VIP sticker can be displayed on the front of a hard hat.
The volunteer’s name displayed on the shirt, in the form of one of the following items:
A VIP name bar, with an optional hour/year recognition attachment
A VIP cloth patch
A local name bar or name tag developed by the park or program, if desired
A small, circular enameled lapel pin in the form of the VIP insignia is also available. It can be worn as part of the uniform or given to the volunteer as a token of appreciation.
Uniform Wear Standards
The VIP uniform should only be worn while providing assigned volunteer service. The same list of activities prohibited for NPS staff while in uniform applies to volunteers while in uniform (see Prohibited Volunteer Activities).
All VIP uniforms and uniform components must meet the following minimum standards:
They must be clean, neat, and free of offensive odor at the beginning of the workday.
They must not be faded or frayed and must be free of excessive wear, including worn areas, shiny spots, pilling, holes, or missing buttons.
All items should be ordered (or altered to) sizes that prevent excessive tightness or bagginess.
Additional standards may be defined when establishing local policy.
Regular Personal Clothing
Volunteers who are in public contact positions should be in the volunteer uniform rather than personal clothes. However, at the discretion of the superintendent/manager, some volunteers may not be required to wear an official uniform. Regular personal clothing worn during volunteer service should be neat, clean, in good taste, and appropriate to the type of work being done. Non-uniformed volunteers should be identified as volunteers in some other way, such as with a sign at a group work site or with reusable safety vests with a VIP logo.
Reproduction Period Clothing
Reproduction period clothing that complies with historic dress standards of the NPS area may be worn. If the identification tag or name bar is not worn, some other method should be employed to let the public know that volunteers are involved in that activity.
Source of Supplies
Volunteer program supplies, including patches, lapel pins, and stickers, are available online. Some regions may also choose to make bulk purchases available; check with your regional volunteer program manager.
Volunteer name bars and volunteer hours/years recognition attachments, as well as cloth patches for shirts, are available through the NPS uniform contractor. When ordering the volunteer name bar, specify the volunteer’s name as it should appear. When ordering the volunteer hours/years name bar attachment, specify the number of hours/years as they should appear. The attachment is applied to the back of the name bar and is removable for subsequent attachments.
Hard hats, caps/hats, and other volunteer uniform items may be ordered by parks and programs using appropriate vendors and government procurement procedures. NPS staff should purchase required items and provide them to the volunteer. Contact regional volunteer program managers for uniform vendors.
(see DO-7, § 11)
A park superintendent/manager has the authority to prioritize and designate government housing for volunteers. According to Reference Manual #36: Housing Management (RM-36), Section 126.96.36.199, each volunteer should work a minimum of 30 hours per week in return for housing or trailer pads, although a superintendent/manager may require a higher minimum. The NPS may not require volunteers to pay rent for government housing.
The superintendent/manager may determine which park office or benefiting account will pay for quarters operations and maintenance, including utilities, to substitute for rent not received while units are being used by volunteers. Excessive cleaning and damage will be billed directly to the volunteer with a bill of collection. If the volunteer is noncompliant, the benefiting account is expected to pay for any excessive cleaning or damages to the unit (see RM-36). If NPS-owned housing is not available, the park may pay for volunteers to live outside the park; the volunteer must pay the rent and be reimbursed. See Reimbursing Volunteers: Travel Status for additional information about reimbursing volunteers for housing.
Rent should not be reimbursed for volunteers who are staying in the residence in which they lived before becoming volunteers.
Check with your housing office to determine if volunteers under the age of 18 are authorized to live in government housing unaccompanied.
In the event of a park closure or government lapse in appropriations, the NPS will close most operations, except for those activities expressly authorized. During these times:
Volunteers are not allowed to serve without supervision and when the normal protections such as liability coverages are suspended (see Antideficiency Act).
Volunteers will follow the same schedule as furloughed NPS employees and must follow the same restrictions as NPS employees. This includes not accessing closed federal buildings and not using any federal equipment or property, such as vehicles, computers, mobile phones, maintenance equipment, or educational props.
Volunteers may continue to stay in NPS housing and campgrounds at the discretion of park superintendent/manager.
Individuals or groups wishing to volunteer for partner organizations who are active during a park closure must enroll separately as a volunteer(s) for that partner and would then be covered by the insurance and human resource policies of that partner, if any. In the case of an NPS volunteer enlisting to serve with a partner, the volunteer must wear whatever uniform is prescribed by the partner and may not wear the NPS volunteer uniform in performance of these duties unless expressly authorized.
When anticipating a park closure, parks and programs should include volunteers as part of their contingency planning in terms of communication.
Last updated: November 20, 2020