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Court allows minor league players to sue for minimum wage violations

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A federal appeals court has given a key victory to players on minor league baseball teams the right to sue to be paid the minimum wage while they’re in spring training in Arizona.

In an extensive ruling, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said that the players are entitled to pursue a class-action lawsuit to show that the 15 teams that train here were not obeying minimum wage laws. That specifically includes Arizona law which currently mandates that all employees get at least $11 an hour, a figure that goes up to $12 in January.

Friday’s ruling comes seven months after Rep. T.J. Shope, R-Coolidge, attempted to undermine at least part of the players’ claims by seeking to amend state law to exempt baseball teams, including the Arizona Diamondbacks, from the voter-approved laws that mandate what employees must be paid. That measure also effectively would have let teams work their minor league players as much as they want without having to worry about overtime or, in some cases, paying them at all.

T.J.Shope

T.J.Shope

That measure died amid legal questions about whether Arizona lawmakers had the power to alter what voters had approved.

Garrett Broshuis who represents minor league players, told Capitol Media Services he did not know how much money is at stake in terms of missed pay for work already done.

“You have players that are required to report to spring training every spring and they have to work for no pay there,” he said. “We believe that is fundamentally unfair and that no worker should be forced to work for free.”

But he said part of the focus now is changing the rules for future players. And Broshuis said that the financial hit to teams with payrolls of more than $100 million a year should not break them.

Messages left with a spokesman for Major League Baseball and the lead attorney defending the teams were not immediately returned.

Central to the dispute is that most major professional sports in this country have their own “farm system” to develop talent. For baseball, according to court records, it’s an extensive minor league system with nearly 200 affiliates across the country employing about 6,000 players.

All minor league players are required to sign a seven-year Uniform Player Contract, which spells out that first-year players are paid a fixed salary of $1,100 a month during the regular season.

But beginning in early March, the minor league affiliates conduct spring training in Arizona and Florida. And appellate Judge Richard Paez, writing for the majority, said that contract “strongly indicates” that participation is mandatory.

More to the point, virtually all players are not paid during the four-week period, with some players saying that training entails working seven days a week. There also are “instructional leagues” after the regular season, with Paez saying that the contract strongly implies that participation is required.

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)

“And just as with spring training, players are virtually never paid for participation in the instructional league,” he wrote.

In fact, Paez, a President Clinton appointee, said that of the 21,211 players who participated in spring training between the 2009 and 2015 seasons, only 11 were paid a salary.

That led to the class-action lawsuit against Major League Baseball and all the teams charging them with violating labor laws in Arizona, Florida and California, with more than 2,200 current and former minor league players opting in.

Attorneys for the league and the teams sought to quash the class-action move, arguing among other things that players from teams across the country should not be able to argue that they are entitled to the protections of Arizona’s laws, which have a higher minimum wage than required under federal laws. Paez rejected that contention.

“The laws of Arizona and Florida should apply to the work performed wholly within their respective boundaries,” he wrote.

Paez also said that the heart of the case involves minimum wage violations. That, he said, means that liability can be established simply by showing that the players performed “any compensable work.”

And he specifically noted that, under Arizona law, the failure of an employer to keep appropriate records of hours worked “raises a rebuttable presumption that the employer did not pay the required minimum wage.”

Friday’s ruling clearing the way for the class-action lawsuit does not mean the players ultimately will win.

Richard Paez

Richard Paez

Paez said the case will come down to two questions: Are they employees, and do the activities they perform during those times constitute “compensable work.”

“As nearly all players are unpaid during these time periods, if the answer to those two questions are resolved in plaintiffs’ favor, liability may be established by showing that the players performed any work,” he wrote.

Shope’s bill sought to exempt the players from the state minimum wage. On paper, that would have left them subject only to federal law.

But last year lobbyists for Major League Baseball pushed a measure through Congress dubbed the “Saving America’s Pastime Act” which exempts teams from all federal wage laws as long as they pay the players at least $290 a week. That’s the equivalent to $7.25 an hour for a 40-hour week – the federal minimum wage – but with a specific exemption from overtime, meaning they can force the players to work as many hours as they want for that $290.

That change was buried on page 1,967 of a $1.3 trillion spending bill signed into law by President Trump.

Shope, the House speaker pro-tem, said he was sponsoring HB 2180 at the behest of lobbyists here for Major League Baseball. He said they told him there are reasons that it makes no sense to try to reduce player pay to an hourly basis.

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