Photo Source: Al Behrman/AP
Unprecedented may be the most frequently used word in the country this year. For months, you couldn’t see a commercial break without companies mentioning how we are in “unprecedented times.” For Minor League Baseball (MiLB) and Major League Baseball (MLB), these are truly unprecedented times in their relationship. Not only did the agreement between MiLB and MLB expire last week, but this week the Supreme Court denied MLB’s writ of certiorari in a case, Senne v. Kansas City Royals, started by current and former minor league players about earning a livable wage. As a result, the case will be sent back to federal district court and this issue will continue to be litigated.
Lack of Pay
While we await the anticipated changes to the entire Minor League system as we know it, a topic to be covered in a future post, we can look at the potential big win for the minor league plaintiffs in their multiyear suit against MLB. The suit originated because of the great discrepancy between hours worked and salaries paid to minor leaguers, especially in comparison to those in the major leagues. While the minimum for Major League contract players is $563,500 and members of the organization’s 40-man roster is $46,000, members of the organization outside the 40-man roster (most minor leaguers) total salaries range from around $6,000 in Single-A to around $9,350 in Double-A to nearly $15,000 in Triple-A in 2018, according to The Athletic.
A majority of the minor leaguers do not come in with a massive signing bonus to help their low rate of pay, either. College seniors, for example, were found to sign for only 19.77% of the recommended spending amount for their draft slots. Without much leverage, many minor leaguers are stuck having to live off primarily their baseball salaries during the playing season. While it’s true the lower levels play a shorter season than the major leagues, the complaint notes that minor leaguers spend months out of the year at spring training facilities or development leagues on top of working over 40 hours a week and playing 2-3 weeks at a time without an off day.
Qualifying as a Class Action
The plaintiffs are former and current minor league baseball players who allege they were not paid an appropriate wage for their hours worked according to the Federal Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and state laws in Arizona, Florida, and California. The choice of states is not by accident. The attorneys, lead in part by former minor leaguer and current attorney Garrett Broshuis, pursued claims in Arizona and Florida because that’s where spring training and development leagues occur without players getting paid salaries. As outlined in that article, players get breakfast, lunch, and $25 a day. That’s it.
Broshuis and his fellow attorneys satisfied the class action requirement by breaking the plaintiffs into different classes. They had to do so because MLB spent millions of dollars pushing the “Save America’s Pastime Act,” a bill specifically designed to preempt Broshuis’s lawsuit. The bill was included as part of the larger omnibus spending bill and exempted minor leaguers from protection under the FLSA and only allowed minor leaguers to get paid for, at most, 40 hours in a week. As attorney Sheryl Ring wrote, “Broshuis pivoted, instead seeking relief under Arizona’s state minimum wage law. In Arizona, the current minimum wage is $11 per hour, and will rise to $12 an hour in 2020. As a result, even to the extent minor leaguers’ access to federal minimum wage laws are limited by the new federal statute, they may well be entitled to the higher state minimum wage.”
The Ninth Circuit Weighs In
The Ninth Circuit Court stated “Two classes cover time spent participating in spring training, extended spring training, and the instructional leagues— periods during which virtually all players are completely unpaid for their participation.” The other class was under California law for claims relating to the Advanced-A California League. The Court went on to say, “Moreover, these classes do not bring overtime claims, but rather allege minimum wage violations. Therefore—as the district court correctly held—liability can be established simply by showing that the class members performed any compensable work.”
The Court found that the case can be brought as a class action because “damages may well vary, and may require individualized calculations. But ‘the rule is clear: the need for individual damages calculations does not, alone, defeat class.'” As attorney Sheryl Ring again stated in an article, “This ruling is rather close to a worst-case scenario for Major League Baseball, not just because a trial would mean the risk of owing thousands of players thousands of dollars each, but also because a loss would result in the entire minor league payment scheme being found to violate minimum wage standards as a matter of law.”
MLB tried to have the Ninth Circuit rehear the case en banc but the Ninth Circuit denied the request. That led MLB to bring the appeal in a writ of certiorari to the Supreme Court which was denied just last week. Now, MLB will be faced with a decision whether to settle or continue on with the case.
Reactive instead of Proactive for MLB
Those pushing for minor league pay increases struggled to understand MLB’s refusal to just outright bump up minor leaguers pay to the livable wage. As Broshuis stated on a recent podcast, they are only asking to be paid the minimum wage. He just wants MLB to be held to the same standard as companies like Walmart is for their employees. A study done in 2017 estimated that it would cost MLB a grand total of $5.5 million to pay all current minor leaguers minimum wage (which works out to around $15k/year per player).
Instead of getting out in front and helping their own minor league players, MLB continued to fight this case and even spent $1.2 million lobbying Congress to pass the “Save America’s Pastime Act”. As Broshuis stated on that same podcast, MLB’s decisions were dictated by businessmen thinking about profit over people.
As the years have gone on, MLB provided some pay increases that allow Triple-A players to make up to $14,000 over their 5 month season and Single-A players $4,800 for their 3 month season. Individual teams have also gotten in on the movement like the Toronto Blue Jays who increased all of their minor leaguers pay by 50%. These gestures do not cost an exorbitant amount of money for a league that saw a record $10.7 billion in revenue in 2019 and, in the Blue Jays case, generated a lot of goodwill for the organization.
The Ongoing Effect on the Future of MiLB
Those pay increases are difficult to evaluate without also looking at the changing landscape of minor league baseball. The Commissioner Rob Manfred and MLB are continuing their plan to eliminate 42 of the 160 minor league teams in a league-wide effort to, in part, “improv[e] the working conditions for MiLB players, including their compensation, improving transportation and hotel accommodations, providing better geographic affiliations between major league clubs and their affiliates, as well as better geographic lineups of leagues to reduce player travel.” Rather than pay the minor leaguers first and worry about the costs later, MLB looks as though the only reason they can afford to increase pay is by cutting teams and ending careers.
Despite the evidence that MLB could afford to pay minor league players at least minimum wage, it’s taken until now for Manfred and MLB to start to take steps to do so. Even those steps have to be considered with the realty in mind that MLB has fought minor league players for over 6 years in this case, as well as used improving working conditions to necessitate their 42 team contraction plan they proposed. As more details emerge about the future of minor league baseball we will have posts continuing the conversation following to see how MLB decides to handle minor league baseball. Until then, it will be up to Manfred and MLB to determine what path they want to pursue with minor league baseball and if they will truly put their players first.