RealTime IT News

AOL Volunteers Sue For Back Wages

Two former America Online Inc. volunteers have filed a class action lawsuit against the company in U.S. District Court in Manhattan.

The suit alleges that Brian Williams and Kelly Hallisey, along with an estimated 10,000 AOL volunteers, should have been paid for their work in AOL's forums, chat rooms, and bulletin boards.

Damages have not yet be set, but Leon Greenberg, attorney for the volunteers, estimates that AOL could owe as much as $20 million in back wages. While his clients and other members of the class voluntarily gave their time to AOL, Greenberg says federal labor law doesn't allow such generosity to a for-profit business.

"AOL isn't a charity. If it were, these people would have no claim. But AOL does business to make money and therefore they're covered by law."

Williams said the commercialization of AOL was in part what drove him and Hallisey to file the suit. According to Williams, he became disillusioned when AOL started turning its community forums into revenue generators.

"It increasing became like AOL was just trying to make a dollar off the back of free slave labor. Before, you didn't have advertising everywhere, and it was a much richer community where people got together to get together, and now it's not like that."

After putting in several thousand hours as a volunteer, Williams says AOL relieved him of his role after he organized a strike of AOL community leaders in the fall of 1996. The strike was in protest of AOL's announcement that it would charge guides $5 per month for AOL access -- taking away the free accounts which were the only compensation they received for their work. Since the strike, he says he and Hallisey have been marked as troublemakers.

"They fired me to shut me up. We've been labeled security risks due to the strike. We can't go into chat rooms now without four or five names popping in that are internal AOL folk just watching us, not saying a word."

The lawsuit comes 6 weeks after reports that the US Labor Department, in response to complaints from volunteers, is investigating AOL for its use of unpaid labor.

AOL officials today didn't return phone calls seeking a response. Williams and Hallisey have set up a Web site to distribute information about the suit and invite other AOL volunteers to join.