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Last week marked the start of a new season not just in Major League Baseball (MLB) but in the minor leagues as well. While current prospects are trying to move closer to the big leagues, a group of more than 2,200 former minor leaguers is suing MLB in an effort to raise their pay.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Joseph Spero has recertified Senne v. Office of the Commissioner of Baseball as a federal collective and as a California class seeking to be regulated under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The group has been narrowed to players who have participated in the Class A California League, spring training, extended spring training or instructional leagues since 2011 and who hadn't signed a major league contract before then.
Though they are professionals, minor league players get paid only during the season—not during spring training or in the fall instructional league. Players get as little as $1,100 a month for a five-month season. The wages have stayed the same since well before the publication of a 2015 USA Today article noting that many minor league baseball players earn less than minimum wage.
"The starting salary when I left baseball was $1,100 a month, paid only during the season," said Garrett Broshuis, a pitcher who made it to a Triple-A team and is now one of the attorneys representing the players. "The starting salary has been the same since 2006. Thousands of minor leaguers reported to spring training, and they weren't paid their salaries. No other industry would think about doing that."
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During Broshuis' playing time, he wrote blog posts for Sporting News and Baseball America that brought increased attention to the players' working conditions. While the top players get seven-figure bonuses, the rank and file have to stretch their paychecks and $25 per diems on road trips as far as they can.
Some players have host families who charge little or no rent, and others stay in cramped quarters. Proper nutrition is also hard to come by when fast food is often what fits into the players' budgets.
Response from MLB and MiLB
MLB's position, according to Commissioner Rob Manfred last year, is that minor league players are serving apprenticeships. He has also pointed out that many of the top players do receive lucrative signing bonuses.
"This is not about the economics so much as it is about the feasibility of applying rules that were meant for hourly workers in traditional work settings to minor league baseball players," Manfred said. "These are more like apprenticeship programs or artistic pursuits where there are explicit exceptions to the wage and hour requirements" of the FLSA.
The umbrella organization known as Minor League Baseball (MiLB) serves more than 200 farm teams that are affiliated with major league parent clubs. That organization is also fighting the wage lawsuit. During December's Winter Meetings in National Harbor, Md., MiLB announced the creation of a political action committee that will lobby Congress on behalf of the minor league franchises.
Stan Brand, MiLB's chief legal counsel, told Baseball America that "while [the players' lawsuit is] the most immediate and pressing [issue], it's probably true that we're going to face this down the road in some other format. Rather than, as I said, wait to remobilize, we're going to be proactive, get engaged, get our troops engaged, get an infrastructure in place that allows us to immediately respond."
MLB pays minor league salaries, but it has indicated that higher wages could affect the number of markets that have minor league teams.
Last June 29, U.S. Representatives Brett Guthrie (R-Ky.) and Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.) introduced the Save America's Pastime Act, which would have amended the FLSA to clarify that minor league players were not subject to traditional hourly minimum wages. However, Bustos withdrew her support a day later, explaining that "several concerns about the bill have been brought to my attention."
The Next Pitches
In the wage lawsuit, the minor league players and MLB have until April 28 to present a proposed schedule to Spero. MLB is also considering an appeal of the recertification, according to Employment Law 360.
The Major League Baseball Players Association represents only the approximately 400 minor leaguers who are on 40-man rosters. The rest of the players are not part of a union.
"Long term, I would love to see the [rest of the] minor leaguers unionized," said Broshuis, who is with Korein Tillery in St. Louis. "It would allow them to work with the owners to come to resolutions. We're talking about an industry that is making more money than it has ever made. It's a $10 billion-dollar industry in the major leagues. The minor leaguers are also playing in front of thousands of fans a night."
Broshuis was a fifth-round pick out of the University of Missouri in 2004. He received a $160,000 signing bonus, but most of his teammates were not so fortunate. He talked to them about ways to try to improve the system. Later at law school at Saint Louis University, he wrote a paper on the possibility of unionizing minor league players. That's not on the horizon, but minor leaguers once again have a chance in court after Spero originally ruled last July that their experiences were too broad to be considered as a class-action suit.
Last August, Spero granted a motion to reconsider his order. Both parties appeared again in his court in December, and last month he amended his July decision.
"The overarching goal is to change the practice for future guys," Broshuis said. "You talk to our clients, and they'll tell you that their goal is to make it right for the future. A lot of the guys have sons or kids they are coaching, and they want them to grow up in a more fair situation."
Lacy Lusk is an e-newsletter editor with the Society for Human Resource Management.
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