About 300 “seat-fillers” spent 14 hours working at the Oscars last weekend for nothing but the chance to be in the same room as their idols. But does California law require that they be paid? We analyze their chances of winning a lawsuit against the Academy
That’s why hundreds of Los Angeles wannabes apply to become seat-fillers every year. For the chance to rub elbows with Brad Pitt, they’re willing to buy evening wear, get professional hair and makeup, and be at the venue from nine in the morning until the curtains close at midnight.
But if perchance a disgruntled volunteer were to sue for a wage-and-hour violation, would the case win?
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is a non-profit organization, so under certain circumstances it may be able to use volunteers for its cause. But that’s not where a court’s analysis would stop, says California-based employment lawyer Wendy Musell.
“Particularly in California, a volunteer means an individual who performs work for a civic, charitable or humanitarian reason,” she says. “The fact that they’re not-for-profit doesn’t mean that they get a free reign to not pay individuals if they’re actually performing work. That’s only the first enquiry.”
There are several questions the courts would examine in considering whether the seat-fillers are truly volunteers, including:
- Is this truly a civic, charitable or humanitarian organization?
- Is this service typically associated with volunteer work? Are these services provided different than those that would typically be provided by volunteers – for example, helping out at a soup kitchen?
- How much control is exerted by the company?
- Can the volunteers set their own hours?
- Is the volunteer taking the place of another worker?
- Is there a third party contracting the volunteers?
But whether volunteers would actually pursue a cause like this with litigation is yet to be seen. “At the end of the day the value of these seats may be far greater than that of minimum wage, so the likelihood that the individual would actually seek minimum wage is minimal,” Musell says.
The Academy did not respond to requests for comment in time for publication.
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