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Redskins "Ambassadors" Program Walks Fine Line of Labor Laws

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In a solicitation that seeks 250 residents to volunteer at Redskins training camp, Richmond Mayor Dwight Jones calls the chance to work unpaid "an incredible opportunity to … promote civic pride."

But to J.H. Verkerke, a University of Virginia law professor specializing in employment regulations, it looks more like "an amusing instance of a for-profit company using free labor in its commercial activities."

Verkerke says the city and the Washington Redskins have structured the training camp ambassadors program in a way that creatively skirts federal employment laws that forbid for-profit corporations from using unpaid laborers such as volunteers and interns.

"If the Redskins had created the ambassadors program to recruit free help in the stadium on game days," Verkerke says, "there is little doubt it would violate federal wage and hour law."

He says that's likely why the Redskins turned to the city to run the program. Under federal statutes, municipalities may use volunteers.

Mayor Jones' press secretary, Tammy Hawley, says the agreement grew "out of initial negotiations" with the team. She says the city "was contacted early on by the public looking for opportunities to volunteer," and that the city thought it would help bolster its volunteer program, Neighbor-to-Neighbor.

Ambassadors in the program, who numbered 300 last year, are advised that they must arrive on time and "be able to stand for long durations while working outside in typical summer weather" while they greet guests, provide information, monitor parking lots, perform bag-safety checks and assist with crowd control.

In exchange, the Redskins provide team pins to volunteers who work five seven-hour shifts. Those who work 10 shifts get to attend an autograph session. And those who work 13 shifts earn a trip to a game at FedEx field.

The Redskins also compensate the city for operating the program on their behalf: They credited the city's Economic Development Authority $65,000 for the volunteer labor last year, which was deducted from the $500,000 a year the city agreed to pay the team for practicing here.

That the team is directly providing the incentives makes the "smell of subterfuge a little stronger," Verkerke says, but the city and the team appear to be walking on the right side of a fine line.

Redskins spokesman Tony Wyllie says in a statement that the team is "thrilled to support" the city's volunteer program: "We have heard from many of the volunteers since last year's training camp thanking us for the opportunity to participate and letting us know that they are excited to be a part of training camp for years to come."

The first day of camp is July 24.

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