Friday, May 16, 2014

I volunteer to be exploited...

On the surface of things, it's hard to find fault with volunteers and volunteerism. You start writing stuff in that vein and people really come down on you as the Voice of Doom.

Volunteers are, of course, the lifeblood of many American philanthropies and community outreaches. The likes of Meals on Wheels, Habitat for Humanity, literacy programs at most libraries, and countless other boots-on-the-ground initiatives could not long survive without good people who donate their time.

That said, I am troubled when I see volunteerism increasingly playing a role in the operations of larger, well-heeled corporations. That strikes me as somewhat predatory. And the fact that there are people only too happy to volunteer for such "jobs" doesn't make the situation any better; to my mind it makes the situation seem all the more predatory.

My wife recently had surgery at St. Luke's Hospital in Allentown, PA, and the lady behind the desk in the post-op waiting room was a volunteer. She was a lovely older woman who actually gets up extra-early each day of her shift in order to bake brownies or other goodies for the people she'll encounter in the waiting room. These are from-scratch brownies and goodies, not the Duncan Hines variety. She told me that she'll average three shifts in a given week.

Here are some fast facts about St. Luke's, from its own web site:

  • 55,300+ annual admissions
  • 193,000 annual emergency room visits
  • 9,400+ employees (the region's second largest employer)
  • 1,342 physicians (representing more than 90 specialties; 92 percent board certified)
  • 1,652 volunteers
Here are St. Luke's financials from its 2012 Annual Report to the Community:
St.Luke’s operating revenue in excess of expense for the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2012 was $11,037,000, representing an operating margin of 2.5 percent.... Total operating revenue grew to $439 million... 
As you can see, we are talking about a giant regional network. A giant regional network that takes in $11 million "in excess of expense." Why allow anyone to be a volunteer? (OK, volunteers do get "delicious hot meals" in the cafeteria and "discounted" gym memberships.) Would it break the bank to pay the woman at the post-op desk a minimum wage? How far would such largess eat into the hospital's operating margin, even if St. Luke's-Allentown paid all 1652 volunteers a minimum wage?

Let's see now. Suppose they paid Brownie Lady $8 an hour for a five-hour shift. That's the princely sum of $40 per day. If she works her three-shift average she makes $120 that week. If she works 50 weeks (likely more than the real number), that's $6000 a year. Multiply that by 1652 (making the same assumptions about the other 1651 volunteers) and you have total additional annual wages of just under $10 million. So your operating margin is now down to around $1 million. But, that probably wouldn't happen, either, as the hospital might raise its rates subtly to defray the added outlay. Lord knows hospitals make adjustments and assessments to cover all sort of other routine expenses. Or St. Luke's could hit up one of its own big-dollar benefactors for a donation; maybe the donor wouldn't get his or her name on a new wing this time, but the hospital could put some kind of patch on the arms of the volunteers whose salary the donation is paying. Or Brownie Lady could design the altruist's initials into each batch via the creative use of icing...

In any case, I think St. Luke's would muddle through somehow. I don't get it.

20 comments:

Anonymous said...

I like the way you just gloss over cutting their margin by $10 million. That's also why I love it when people who know nothing about business write about business. You're probably one of those guys who thinks that CEOs make way too much and we should tax them back to a "normal salary" so we can pay the people in shipping and receiving an extra 90 cents an hour. Just plain dumb. Learn something before you pontificate on these topics next time, okay?

whistle said...

Yeah, I don't get volunteer work in that setting either. Another similar example: my company provides contract employees to military bases. We recently had to fire someone because she got in repeated verbal altercations with another employee (employed by a different contractor), who was the instigator. We were told that the other employee was also fired, but that she would be allowed to come back as a volunteer. So it's OK to create a hostile work environment just as long as no one is paying you!

I will quibble with one point, though. Paying an employee $8/hr costs well over $8/hr to the employer. Depending on the state, you're looking at an additional 10-13% paid by the employer before taking into account any benefits.

Steve Salerno said...

Anon, normally I wouldn't bother with a defense but in this case I might just mention that I've written on business, including award-winning pieces and cover stories, for every business publication that matters, as well as for important "mainstream" magazines and newspapers. I was a featured columnist for the Wall Street Journal between 1985 and 2000. Also two of my three books dealt heavily with biz operations.

And anyway, I don't think this is about business as much as it is about morality. I know it's hard for some of you to see how morality plays any role in business affairs, but try to expand your horizons a bit and maybe you'll begin to grasp it.

Steve Salerno said...

Whistle, that's actually pretty freakin' funny (the hostile environment thing). Also sounds risky in a litigation sense, don't you think?

And yes, I do realize that it costs the employer more than $8...and it's a point worth making. Thank you.

whistle said...

It is funny. And sad. And not the craziest situation we've been in at that particular base. I don't think litigation is really something they're really afraid of, (for various reasons IMO).

Cal said...

I feel the same way when I get requests for a donation to the college I went to and I see their endowment. Plus it's a state school. (Don't get me started on the endowments of the Ivies, NYU, Stanford, etc.)

Then I get more infuriated when I read how some public school teachers have to use funds from their own relatively meager salaries to buy school supplies.

Steve Salerno said...

Cal, thanks for dropping in to make those excellent points. I wish I'd thought of the scholastic situation you reference in public schools. That's a form of latter-day "volunteerism" that drives me up a wall as well.

Anonymous said...

Again you take a concept that is universally known to be wholesome and inspirational and you turn it on its ear. What's next, the tragic underside of being a great mother?

Steve Salerno said...

Anon, if you re-read the post, or have someone read it to you, you'll see that I was not critiquing volunteerism. I give volunteers all the credit in the world; I'm suspect of the people who exploit them.

And for the record, there are plenty of people who already expose the dark underbelly of motherhood: they're called feminists.

Marge Halston, age 77 said...

I volunteer at a hospital and it makes me feel good to do it. I actually prefer it to being paid because it's a labor of loved to me. Yes I even bake. Not everything in life is shout money, shame on you.

Henriette said...

Please don't forget internships! Internships have also turned into a forma of slavery. It used to be an internship was a way to learn about a job. In exchange for your unpaid time, you would learn something about the field. I had a student recently who was the "media expert" for a magazine. She was in charge of their facebook, tumbler, twitter, and linked in pages. She also had to take a test to show her computer skills to get the internship! I was appalled, but have learned this is now common practice.

Steve Salerno said...

Marge, more power to you. I'm glad you have a good attitude about it; I still think you "guys" get taken advantage of. I can certainly understand your point-of-view if the business is a charity or a bare-bones organization like some inner-city clinics. But eight-figure health networks? I just don't see it. You can bet their cardiologists and anesthesiologists make sure they're paid top dollar for their services.

Henriette, yes, journalism is a field where internships have been highly predatory. Interns tend to be gofers who are taught very little about craft, process, etc. I must say, to its credit, my former employer, Rodale, always paid its interns and involved them heavily in the editorial routine. And when I was at the American Legion, I also made sure our interns did authentic publishing-related work. Some of them have gone on to wonderful careers in magazines.

roger o'keefe said...

This is what drives me nuts about you and critics of the free market in general. Where is it written that a company or employer has to pay people more than they ask for? Does this also mean that if I hire a secretary who's willing to take the job for $23,000, I'm supposed to pay her $40,000 out of the goodness of my heart? Where does it end, Steve. I also don't know how you compare a cardiologist with some lady who sits behind a desk and offers baked goods to people in a waiting room.

I'm with your critic above, just let the businesspeople run the businesses and we'll all be better off.

Steve Salerno said...

Roger...do you even see the elitist condescension of your remarks? I don't mean to veer off into the realm of the personal attack, but "some lady who sits behind a desk and serves baked goods"? For real? While I'm on the subject, I intuit a certain sexism as well. "Some lady" and the idea of hiring a "secretary" for cheapskate wages and paying "her" more than she deserves?

We are all people, Roger, doing our best to make it through. If you earn more money than most of the rest of us, it doesn't mean you're better than we are. Just maybe luckier or, simply, higher-paid. And just because patricians like yourself get to call the shots doesn't mean you get to set the value of the rest of us plebes. Noblesse oblige, no?

Pay does not equal worth or human value; if you don't care to look inward for proof, just look at some of our millionaire sports celebs.

RevRon's Rants said...

Yeah, that free market has been a resounding success. Here's a list of a few examples of just how well it's working: http://www.huppi.com/kangaroo/Marketfailures.htm.

Steve Salerno said...

Ron...atypically concise, for you. But on-point!

Thanks.

Steve Salerno said...

Ron: And I don't want any grief from you about the new profile pic. Yeah, like Mork from Ork, I'm getting progressively younger.

Nana nanu...

Jenny said...

That's an interesting link, Ron. The prisoner's dilemma reminds me of Palcohol (powdered alcohol). What could possibly go wrong with that?

Anonymous said...

In addition, even if paid, "temporary" employment in some fields have kept those fields' full-time wages at absurdly low levels for over 15 years (like graphic design, some Web development, secretarial as mentioned). Related, the stagnation of minimum wage and those "voting" to keep it at double where it was 45 years ago, ahem?! (Food servers' wage is still at $2.13 an hour, since 1991, and food servers still take those jobs.)

Steve Salerno said...

Anon 6:29..."In addition" to what?