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Website users who submit ‘content’ aren't necessarily employees

Yelp is a website that publishes crowd-sourced reviews about local businesses. The company was recently sued by a class of “reviewers” who said that they should be paid for the content that they supplied to the website, pursuant to the Fair Labor Standards Act.

However, a federal judge recently ruled that the reviewers are volunteers and are not employed by Yelp. Therefore, they are not entitled to payment.

The lead plaintiff in the lawsuit claimed that an employee-employer relationship existed because she had been “hired" by Yelp, and Yelp controlled her and other reviewers’ "work schedule and conditions.” The lawsuit also claimed that at least two of the reviewers had been “fired” by Yelp.

The court disagreed after finding that the so-called hiring was actually the process by which any member of the public can sign up for a Yelp account submit reviews, and the so-called firing was the process by which Yelp could terminate accounts because of conduct that the company did not allow.

After the decision was announced, an attorney for Yelp called the lawsuit “frivolous;” however, it does raise an important issue at a point in time when so many large websites depend on user-generated content to make money or even exist.

Ultimately, as a Forbes article pointed out, employment law could see a big change if the courts decide to add a third category of “volunteers” to the current protected categories of “employees” and “independent contractors” when dealing with for-profit companies.

While the judge in this case didn't go this far, it might not be the last time we hear from content-supplier "volunteers" and their rights under the FLSA.

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