If you were laid off, would you work for free?

What if your company said that it wanted you to work for free and that was the only way for it to stay viable? When the tech start-up company I worked for in the last recession asked my colleagues and me to agree to a pay cut, we did. But when it said it would pay us in worthless stock options rather than wages, most of us did not agree to work for what was essentially for free. While we all found other jobs, the few who stayed never saw their work pay off and lost many opportunities along the way.

Meanwhile, other companies ask workers to take unpaid vacations - or furloughs. But employees, often worried about their jobs, keep working during that time. That has been the case in several companies and U.S. state and city governments. Is that exploitation, or is it a smart way for employees' to invest in their future, making sure their company gets through the hump so it can continue to employ them? Making a good impression on the boss never hurts either.

These are tough calls. There's a reason why there is a minimum wage law. It's quite simply to protect employees from being exploited by companies. By law, companies cannot pay workers less than the minimum wage. Clearly, free is less than minimum wage.

There are different ways to look at this, though. Sometimes, working for free may be beneficial for those who are unemployed, while other times it could harm them. With U.S. unemployment at a 20-year high, some employees are so desperate that they don't always act in their own best interests. This can be exploited by companies, despite the illegalities.

But unemployed job seekers don't have to look at all unpaid opportunities as exploitation; sometimes, working for free can provide a good jumping board to future employment. While it is illegal for commercial companies not to pay workers, there are many non-for-profit and government organizations that would love to have more people volunteering their time and expertise.

Consider Heather Black, a planner, project manager in a land development company in Toronto. Her position was recently eliminated due to company restructuring. But instead of having white space on her C.V., Black decided to remain involved with the charity project she was working on through her company.

Her former employer, strapped for cash and personnel, could no longer afford to donate time and expertise to a subsidized housing development project. Black, who decided to act independently as a development planner consultant on the project, says her role with the charity project fulfills several needs for her. "I can continue to be part of this important housing project," she says. " I'm staying involved in the business, I get to keep my contacts and make new ones, and my resume now has a consultant position immediately after my last employment."

Black thinks that working in non-for profit organizations can benefit many unemployed people. With many companies cutting back on charity donation and work, non-for profit organziations need more volunteers. Meanwhile, jobs seekers can gain experience, remain involved and develop contacts. "This can be a mutual benefit to the organizations and job seekers," Black said.

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