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Major League Baseball wants players exempt from minimum wage law

In this March 5, 2018, file photo, Colorado Rockies' DJ LeMahieu bats during a spring baseball game against the Chicago Cubs, in Scottsdale. Major League Baseball is seeking an exemption of baseball players from Arizona’s minimum wage law at the Legislature. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson, File)

In this March 5, 2018, file photo, Colorado Rockies’ DJ LeMahieu bats during a spring baseball game against the Chicago Cubs, in Scottsdale. Major League Baseball is seeking an exemption of baseball players from Arizona’s minimum wage law at the Legislature. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson, File)

As pitchers and catchers prep to report for spring training in February, Major League Baseball is trying to convince Arizona lawmakers to exempt minor league ballplayers from the state’s minimum wage law.

The legislative maneuver mirrors the league’s lobbying effort at the federal level, where in 2018 Congress passed the Save America’s Pastime Act as part of a budget bill. That law exempts baseball players on minor league contracts from the Fair Labor Standards Act, which requires employees to be paid the federal minimum wage and overtime pay.

Garrett Broshuis, a St. Louis-based attorney and former minor league player, said that law doesn’t preempt state law from applying to players while they participate in the Cactus League, Arizona’s spring training system.

Arizona voters overwhelmingly approved a law to gradually increase the state’s minimum wage in 2016. Now $11 per hour, the rate will spike to $12 in 2020.

Baseball players won’t see a penny of that come February and March.

“I think that most baseball fans don’t realize that minor league baseball players are not paid at all when they go to spring training,” Broshuis said. “Each year there are thousands of minor leaguers that report to spring training, and they have to perform a month of work, seven days a week, with no pay at all.”

Broshuis sued the league in U.S District Court in San Francisco in 2014 to challenge minor league contracts, which pay as little as $1,100 per month. Those contracts, and those for major league players, only pay during the regular season.

The law passed by Congress was a setback for Broshuis’s case at the federal level. But he’s also seeking class action status in Arizona and Florida – MLB’s other base for spring training – to challenge the league’s pay structure under state law. A federal judge denied that request, but Broshuis is awaiting a ruling on his appeal.

A bill sponsored by Rep. T.J. Shope, R-Coolidge, attempts to undercut that legal fight or any other complaint that teams are in violation of the state’s minimum wage by not paying minor league baseball players during spring training.

HB 2180 would carve out minor league baseball players in Arizona law by enshrining the exemption in federal law in state statute. If signed into law, the bill also applies retroactively, meaning teams would be free from liability against any prior claims that the law was violated. Broshuis said he’s still assessing the bill’s potential impact on his lawsuit.

Shope said the league is trying to shore up it’s legal defense at the state level.

“I think it’s just trying to clear up what MLB considers a gray area on their flank. … My assumption is they obviously do have a concern, and are trying to protect a flank of theirs more in the pro-active sense,” Shope said.

As for the players, Shope described spring training as “essentially a tryout. You’re not on the team yet.”

But once drafted, MLB teams can control a player’s rights for years. A player who doesn’t make the major league roster will most likely get assigned to a minor league affiliate at the team’s discretion, “and then they have to pay that first month of rent, they have to pay that security deposit wherever they’ve been assigned,” Broshuis said. “And it’s incredibly difficult to do that when you’ve been required to work for a full month without pay at all.”

The Major League Baseball Players Association doesn’t represent minor league players, but union officials said they oppose exempting players in the minors from state law.

“It is fundamentally unjust to deny professional baseball players the basic protection of the minimum wage laws, especially at a time when clubs are reporting record revenues,” said Ian Penny, general counsel for MLBPA.

In a statement provided by an MLB spokesman, league officials said that a carve out for minor league players is just another of “a variety” of exemptions in the state’s minimum wage law.

“This legislation is a very specific exemption for a very specific problem. It is not a broad based change in Arizona’s minimum wage law. It furthers the purpose’ of what voters intended by specifying a group that should be exempt,” league officials stated.

In fact, Arizona’s minimum wage laws only exempts employees who regularly receive tips, babysitters and people employed by a parent or sibling.

And Shope acknowledged it’s questionable if the law furthers the voters intent.

That argument is crucial, since the Arizona Constitution has strict protections for voter-approved laws. If lawmakers want to change those laws, as HB 2180 proposes, it requires a three-fourths majority vote of the Legislature and must further the law’s intent.

Attorneys for Living United for Change, a major backer of the minimum wage initiative, said they don’t think Shope’s bill furthers the purpose of the law.

Shope said whether his bill meets those requirements is “something we’re going to have to talk about.” And the political reality of convincing three-fourths of his colleagues to vote for the bill could spell its doom.

“If there is organized opposition to this, you’re never going to get the three-fourths vote anyway,” Shope said.

Broshuis said a carve out for baseball players can’t be what voters wanted.

“It really is just unfortunate, because the people of Arizona passed this law to require employers to pay all workers a minimum wage, and these ballplayers are performing a service that is a valuable service, and they deserve to be compensated at least the minimum wage for it,” he said.

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