A federal lawsuit looms over Minor League Baseball like a threatening storm, and the Northwest Arkansas Naturals are keeping an eye on it as it unfolds in a California court.
On Feb. 7, 2014, former players sued for overtime and minimum wage pay for those who don’t make the big leagues. They sued Major League Baseball, Office of the Commissioner of Baseball, former commissioner Bud Selig and three MLB franchises in U.S. District Court, Northern District of California. The case was later expanded to all 30 MLB franchises before eight teams were dismissed from the suit.
The suit claims players aren’t paid for off-season training, are paid $1,100 per month in the first season, and in the following seasons, receive wages based on a non-negotiable salary scale.
On July 21, Chief Magistrate Judge Joseph C. Spero denied class status in the case and a rejected survey that was part of the suit against the league.
“Individualized issues that would need to be addressed if plaintiff’s claims went forward on a class basis are insurmountable,” Spero wrote in the order. “Most significantly, the court finds that there are wide variations among the players as to the types of activities in which they engaged and the circumstances under which they engaged in them, which will give rise to a plethora of individualized inquiries relating to the determination of the amount of compensable work plaintiffs performed.”
Justin Cole, general manager of the Naturals, the Double-A Texas League affiliate of the Kansas City Royals, said “it’s something we continue to pay attention to,” but added it was tough to comment on the litigation specifically.
“We don’t employ the players,” he said. “All minor leagues are under contract with major league teams. Our role is we work with them.”
The Naturals do not pay their players, he said. The Royals do.
When asked if he felt the players were underpaid, Cole said he couldn’t comment on that.
Cole referred questions regarding the players to Ronnie Richardson, the Royals’ director of minor league operations.
Seeking comment from Naturals players regarding the lawsuit, Northwest Arkansas Business Journal reached out to Richardson, and he referenced a June 30 statement from Major League Baseball.
Pat Courtney, chief communications officer of Major League Baseball, referred to the MLB statement as well, adding that “this has been our only comment since late June.”
According to MLB’s statement, the league pays over $500 million in salary and signing bonuses to the 7,500 minor league players annually. “Minor league clubs could not afford these massive player costs.”
A minor league player is like an apprentice who “either advances to the major leagues or pursues another career,” the statement shows.
“Minor League baseball players always have been salaried employees similar to artists, musicians and other creative professionals who are exempt from the Fair Labor Standards Act.”
Employees who qualify for the creative professional exemption must receive at least $455 per week, and their work must include “invention, imagination, originality or talent in a recognized field of artistic or creative endeavor,” according to the U.S. Department of Labor. On Dec. 1, the salary threshold will increase to $913 per week, from $455.
“It is simply impractical to treat professional athletes as hourly employees whose pay may be determined by such things as how long their games last, when they choose to arrive at the ballpark, how much they practice or condition to stay in shape, and how many promotional or charitable appearances they make,” according to the MLB statement.
The June 30 statement came in the wake of a House bill that was introduced to exempt minor league baseball players from minimum wage and overtime pay requirements.
On June 24, Rep. Brett Guthrie of Kentucky and Rep. Cheri Bustos of Illinois introduced the bill, Save America’s Pastime Act, to put the players “on equal footing with workers in a dozen other unique industries.”
“If the law is not clarified, the costs to support local teams would likely increase dramatically and usher in significant cuts across the league, threatening the primary pathway to the majors and putting teams at risk,” according to a news release from Guthrie.
The bill was sent to the House Committee on Education and the Workforce the same day it was introduced, and as of press time, no further action has been taken on it in the House.
However, six days after announcing her support for the bill, Bustos withdrew her support, and backed fair wages for players.
“While it’s important to sustain minor league baseball teams that provide economic support to small communities across America, I cannot support legislation that does so at the expense of the players that draw us to stadiums,” according to a June 30 news release from Bustos. “I strongly support raising the minimum wage and the right to collective bargaining for fair wages, and I believe that Major League Baseball can and should pay young, passionate minor league players a fair wage for the work they do.”
The day before Bustos withdrew her support of the bill, Minor League Baseball announced its support of the bill and opposition to the federal lawsuit.
“This suit threatens baseball’s decades-old player development system with an unprecedented cost increase, which would jeopardize the skills-enhancement role of the minor leagues and the existence of Minor League Baseball itself,” according to Minor League Baseball’s news release.
“As a result of this lawsuit filed on behalf of thousands of current and former players, many cities would be in jeopardy of losing their Minor League Baseball teams, resulting in the elimination of tens of thousands of jobs nationwide, shuttering tax-payer funded ballparks and creating a void in affordable family-friendly entertainment.”
Court documents show that more than 2,200 former and current minor league players opted in to the case. The player collective included all minor league players, who had played in the minor leagues since Feb. 7, 2011, but didn’t make the major leagues.
The complainants’ claims can be boiled down to three main issues:
• Whether they should be paid for work performed outside the regular season
• Whether they are entitled to overtime pay
• Whether they are entitled to requisite minimum wages during the regular season.
During the season, a player’s schedule includes “games seven days per week with only a couple of off days scheduled each month,” according to court documents. Most games start at 7 p.m. and last 2 ½ to 3 hours.
The complainants’ expert, J. Michael Dennis, whose testimony and survey have been excluded from the case, surveyed 195 players of whom 90 percent said they arrived at the ballpark by 2 p.m. for an evening game.
During spring training, 85 percent said they were expected to work more than 40 hours a week. Over 30 percent said they were expected to work more than 55 hours per week.
Between mid-September and mid-October, instructional leagues are hosted and are similar to spring training with players working six days a week.
Winter training includes franchises following up with players, requiring them to maintain logs reflecting their strength and conditioning work and keeping track of progress.
But MLB said players had discretion as to whether to participate in the activities. Some went to spring training while others didn’t. Some attended mini-camps before training while others did not.
“The court will never have a way to assess where class members engaged in off-season training,” court documents show.
In his ruling, the judge excluded Dennis’ testimony and the survey, finding its methodology “fundamentally flawed” to the extent it assumes the players would be able to remember details about the time they spent on various activities.
Contending that the survey was sound, the complainants cited Tyson Foods Inc. v. Bouaphakeo (2016) in which the Supreme Court upheld the use of statistical evidence in a wage and hour class action suit where the employer had failed to keep adequate time records.
But this case is different from the Tyson case, the judge said, because of the variations among class members in what activities they take part in and the amount of time they spend doing them. “(Complainants) here are attempting to paper over significant material variations that make application of the survey results to the class as a whole improper.”
Moreover, all survey participants had opted into the suit “and were told when they were asked to complete the survey that that was the reason they were being asked to participate. This fact alone raises questions about the reliability of the results.”
While the judge’s decision was a blow to the complainants’ case, paperwork continues to be filed by both sides in the suit.
Complainants have filed paperwork to overturn the judge’s decision, and MLB has filed documents challenging the complainants’ move to refute the judge’s decision.