AOL seeks exclusion from federal labor law

Co. faces $80 mil payout as volunteers seek wages

America Online has asked the Bush administration to exclude its 7,000 volunteer chatroom monitors from the jurisdiction of federal labor laws.

The Internet division of AOL Time Warner faces lawsuits in New York, California and other states by its monitors, called “community leaders,” who get free Internet service instead of pay and are now demanding $80 million in back wages. They claim they should have been paid for the work of facilitating conversation in virtual chatrooms, enforcing AOL rules and giving online support to other subscribers.

AOL’s lawyers have written a comment letter to the Labor Dept. asking that the computer volunteers be explicitly excluded from the Fair Labor Standards Act, which govern minimum wages that must be paid to U.S. employees. The agency is reviewing proposed changes to new regulations that it plans to issue early next year.

“They’re scared to death that they’re going to wind up paying these people,” said Mark Thierman, a labor lawyer who represents thousands of America Online community leaders. “They’re trying to do an end run around the law.”

AOL Time Warner spokesman Nicholas Graham declined to comment on the lawsuits, citing company policy.

In its legal pleadings, America Online said it doesn’t owe the monitors anything more than what they got for volunteering: an Internet account worth about $24 a month, free software to block computer viruses and discounts on America Online merchandise.