Minor League Baseball Players Swing and Miss in Quest For Higher Pay

It’s Opening Day for the Minnesota Twins and we have baseball on our minds, but of course from an employment law perspective.

We wrote two years ago in Minor League Players Seek Major Pay Increase about minor league baseball players pursuing a class action lawsuit seeking coverage under the minimum wage requirements of the Fair Labor Standards Act.  Minor leaguers earn as little as $5000 – $6,000 for an entire season for 50-60 hour workweeks that include games, practices and team meetings.  The baseball players’ union cannot help because they only represent players at the Major League level.

Congress Pitches a Shutout

Major League Baseball (MLB) opposed the move, claiming that baseball players are seasonal workers similar to employees of carnivals, camps and other recreational entities whose workers who are statutorily exempt from coverage.  They also asserted that the players should be considered exempt as creative professionals.  Nevertheless, the class was certified and the litigation was set to proceed.

Thereafter, Congress responded to the issue but not in the way that the players hoped.  The 2018 “Save America’s Pastime Act” amended the FLSA to provide that baseball players under contract were exempt from the minimum wage and overtime provisions of the law as long as their salary equals the federal minimum wage (currently $7.25 per hour) for a 40-hour workweek.  That comes out to $290.00 per week for approximately 18 weeks ($5,200 for the season) for weeks that often extend well beyond 40 hours.  Final score for the players:  continued salary below minimum wage when calculated on an hourly basis and no overtime for extra hours.

State Laws On Deck

Interestingly, the amended FLSA only applies to the actual season and not to spring training or off-season activities.  There, state law (often higher than the federal standard) applies and many states have begun to introduce legislation to mirror the federal amendment.  Here in Minnesota, companion bills exempting minor league baseball players from all state minimum wage and overtime requirements are currently working their way through the two houses of the legislature. The St. Paul Minimum Wage Ordinance requiring $15.00 an hour from employers within the City, has already addressed this issue by exempting minor league baseball activities (e.g. the St. Paul Saints) from coverage.

While states grapple with the exemption issue, some MLB teams have begun to view this as a more of a player development issue than a compensation question.  The Toronto Blue Jays, for example, are in the process of raising salaries for minor leaguers by about 50% across the board in recognition that more nutritious food and more comfortable accommodations may help the players perform better.  Other teams are contemplating providing team meals in the clubhouse and/or increasing per diem payments to offset one of the biggest cost factors for players during the season.  It will be interesting to see how many teams follow this course.

Bottom Line

Some people view the low minor league salaries as a small sacrifice for the chance to play the game and chase the dream.  Others counter by noting that a great many people follow their dreams in a variety of other settings but are able to do so for at least the legally-mandated minimum wage.

The outcome of this contest is still uncertain but we will continue keeping score.