In Chicago-area suburbs, volunteers are now filling positions that used to be held by municipal employees. From painting buildings to installing computers, and even taking fingerprints at the police station, non-paid workers are helping out in ways that would have been unimaginable before the economic downturn.
In Jacksonville, Fla., more than 500 volunteers work in a variety of city government offices, while in Hampton, Va., staff positions are being filled by student volunteers. Across the country, communities are turning to volunteers to help make ends meet.
The solution offers benefits to the volunteers, too. They gain real-world experience, new skills, and work references to add to their resumes. And municipalities are able to continue providing much-needed services to their communities that would otherwise have been cut.
Volunteer workers are free, but that doesn’t mean they are fully qualified for the jobs they do. And they’re not always as committed to the job as paid workers are. There are no penalties for not performing, and little incentive to go the extra mile. A city clerk said that a volunteer, who worked nine to 12 hours a week answering the phone and filing records, was a huge asset, but didn’t want to stay long. “She got bored and went home,” he said.
A representative of a local public worker labor union warned that evidence doesn’t support volunteers as long-term solutions, saying they won’t likely maintain essential services over time. “It is very difficult to screen volunteers for competence and integrity, and even harder to ensure accountability,” he said. The labor union is also opposed to laying off workers and eliminating middle-class jobs.
Others find that volunteers often lack proper training, professionalism and reliability, which could lead to errors—and make cities and towns more vulnerable to lawsuits. To avoid that problem, some municipalities place volunteers only in non-sensitive roles, while fully screening volunteers for criminal records and credit history.
Still, volunteers working in libraries, police departments, mayors’ offices and other city and town service providers are a reflection of a new reality. Budget crunches have forced municipalities to cut workers, and citizens still need services.