Small Business

California Destroys Winery Over Use of Volunteers


Enough a drive a guy to drink. Oh, WAIT!
CC BY-SA 3.0

Apparently your labor is the opposite of your sexuality in California: You can sell it, but you can't give it away for free.

California has a state law that prohibits for-profit companies from using volunteer labor. Anybody who knows anything about employment economics knows that this isn't going to hit those big, dastardly corporations that people hate. No, it's going to end up destroying small wineries like Westover Winery in Castro Valley. From the Mercury News:

A small-time vintner's use of volunteer workers has put him out of business after the state squeezed him like a late-summer grape for $115,000 in fines — and sent a chill through the wine industry.

The volunteers, some of them learning to make wine while helping out, were illegally unpaid laborers, and Westover Winery should have been paying them and paying worker taxes, the state Department of Industrial Relations said.

"I didn't know it was illegal to use volunteers at a winery; it's a common practice," said winery owner Bill Smyth.

So instead, the place will shut down. It was open only 10 hours of week and earned about $11,000 a year in profits for the owning couple. The story notes that half of these volunteers were actually students taking a class about making wine and were benefiting from what they were learning. Essentially they were interns:

This was an incredible opportunity for me," said Peter Goodwin, a home winemaker from Walnut Creek who said he dreams of opening a winery with some friends. "I got to learn from someone who knows the business."

The winery sometimes asked Goodwin if he wanted to assist in different tasks.

"That's what I wanted, to be as involved as much as possible — it was all about learning," he said. "I don't understand the state's action. It was my time, and I volunteered."

A state spokesperson's response was to whine about what might happen if there were a "catastrophic accident" (lawsuits?) and that it wasn't "fair" for wineries that have to pay employees to compete with wineries who don't. I don't think anybody was worried that this $11,000-a-year empire was going to put anybody out of business, and it's the state that mandated this system in the first place. Whenever anybody who works in government talks about creating a level field for the marketplace, you know some small business owner somewhere is about to get screwed over. The story notes that there are many small wineries like this one in the area who rely on volunteers. They had to send them all home.  

(Hat tip to Hit and Run commenter Old Man With Candy.)