Is there anything that defines an American summer more than baseball? Hearing the crack of a bat and smelling the hot dogs and popcorn brings out the patriot in each of us. It is no wonder the sport has been dubbed “America’s pastime.” Congress, however, recently decided that some of the players who bring us America’s pastime do not qualify for protection under America’s most basic wage and hour law.
For years, minor league baseball players have been paid a low, fixed salary that does not include any pay for off-season practice or spring training. Because the players are paid on a salary (rather than hourly) basis, they do not receive additional pay when they work more than 40 hours per week, as is customary. Some minor league players’ salaries are reported as low as $1,100 per month, leaving them struggling to make ends meet.
The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), however, requires that nonexempt workers be paid minimum wages and overtime for hours in excess of 40 per week. Recognizing that the minor league players are not exempt from the FLSA, a group of players filed a class action lawsuit against baseball owners in federal court. The lawsuit demanded that players receive minimum wages and overtime, like other nonexempt American workers.
The players’ argument made sense under existing law. Congress, however, apparently decided that baseball owners should not be subject to the same legal requirements as other American employers and, in an arguably covert move, changed the law. The “Save America’s Pastime Act” was buried in a spring spending bill that was more than 2,000 pages long. The Act simply exempts minor league owners from the normal overtime requirements of the FLSA and allows owners to pay a set salary, regardless of actual hours a player works. In short, Congress carved an exception into the law allowing minor league players to be paid peanuts.
Labor unions, players, and some worker advocate groups are crying foul. They argue that failing to pay players minimum wage and refusing overtime violates bedrock principles of American labor law. They question why team owners are not held to the same standard as other business owners, arguing that other business owners have had to figure out how to handle the financial demands associated with minimum wage and minor league owners should be no exception.
Team owners, business groups and several sports analysts, however, are cheering the legislation as a home run. They claim it is not feasible to pay an hourly wage for the practice time required for a baseball player to become great, and demanding so could cripple the sport. They recognize the financial sacrifice some minor league players make but point to the potential earnings windfall if a player makes it to the major league.
Most lawyers are simply scratching their heads. Minor league baseball is not the first industry to get a special exemption from federal wage laws, forcing lawyers to question why some business owners must comply (regardless of the financial hardship) while others get a Congressional pass.