AOL drops hundreds of teen volunteers

AOL lays off free-teen labor amid Labor Department probe of its use of volunteers.

WASHINGTON -- America Online raised the minimum age of its volunteer Community Leaders to 18, dismissing hundreds of teens who were getting free service in exchange for monitoring chat rooms. The company says it made the decision because "a certain level of maturity is needed." But the move came at a time when the online giant is under fire for allegedly violating labor laws in its treatment of the Community Leaders.

AOL (NYSE:AOL) says the decision was completely unrelated to either a lawsuit filed by former volunteers or an investigation by the U.S. Department of Labor, both of which were initiated this spring.

"We've been contemplating these changes before that came about," said AOL spokesperson Rich D'Amato, who added that the company began discussing the change more than a year ago, and stopped recruiting teens last fall.

One volunteer told MSNBC that as many as 3,500 teens were dismissed; AOL said it was several hundred.

Coincidence or not?
A former volunteer who is one of the complainants in the lawsuit -- which alleges AOL violated the 60-year-old Fair Labor Standards Act by forcing volunteers to work specific shifts, file time cards and abide by different rules than other members -- said the timing is too close to be a coincidence.

"This probably has to do with the Department of Labor and the lawsuit," said Kelley Hallisey, former AOL Community Leader who currently lives in Greensboro, N.C.

Asked about the Labor Department investigation, David Salz, a spokesman for the agency said, "we don't comment on open investigations or procedures."

Hallisey said that since the labor investigation began, the company has circulated questionnaires to its volunteers on how they were treated -- but neglected to send them to anyone who has been vocal about what they feel is mistreatment by the company.

The company has 13,000 volunteers, compared to 12,000 paid employees.

One teen volunteer told MSNBC: "America Online is trying to aimlessly dodge lawsuits, and it's ridiculous. We are people too, kids and teens have feelings! It's heartbreaking to thousands of us, and there needs to be something done."

D'Amato said AOL still offers a program for 16- to 18-year olds who want to volunteer, called the "peer tutoring program." Peer tutors will get a free account, he said.