Minor League Baseball Aiming for Major Pay Increase

Alex Picard- Two weeks ago, the Supreme Court denied Major League Baseball’s petition for certiorari, paving the way for a class action lawsuit against the MLB to proceed. The suit, initiated by a group of former Minor League players, alleged that Major League Baseball engaged in wage and hour violations under both the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and various state laws in California, Florida, and Arizona. The plaintiffs argue that, at an average of $7,500 per year, the average minor league salary is far below that of minimum wage employees and is thus unlawful. Although the average pay is expected to rise slightly next year, the players argue that it is still too low.

Minor League Baseball (MiLB) is the developmental league serving as an affiliate to Major League Baseball (MLB). The MiLB itself consists of several affiliated baseball leagues that are organized from least to most developed. This hierarchy of baseball, from the entry-level “rookie” league to the higher levels of Single-A, Double A, and Triple A, all play seasons from April to September, all of which align with the MLB season. This concurrent season allows MLB teams to promote players from their Minor League affiliate teams throughout the season to join the Major League roster, and vice versa. The MLB requires every minor league player to sign a seven-year Uniform Player Contract before joining a professional club.

The class action lawsuit was initially filed in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California in 2014. The original complaint featured eight classes representing various states and a FLSA collective. So far, the pertinent legal battles have been fought over class and FLSA collective certification. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed class certification in 2019. Supreme Court denied certiorari on October 15, 2020, making this ruling final.

In 2018, the MLB made its position on the issue abundantly clear by lobbying Congress to pass the “Save America’s Pastime Act.”. This act explicitly states that MiLB players are not subject to the protections of the FLSA, meaning that they are not guaranteed minimum wage, payment during Spring Training, or overtime payment. The MLB has justified this stance by claiming that the MiLB is a “short-term seasonal apprenticeship” culminating in a career in the Major Leagues. Interestingly, however, just 17% of drafted players ever make a Major League roster.

Class Certification

This lawsuit contains both classes and a FLSA collective. An FLSA collective, authorized specifically under the FLSA, is similar to a class action. The key difference between the two is that eligible plaintiffs must opt-in to join a FLSA collective, whereas eligible plaintiffs automatically join a class action and may opt out if they please. Out of the 15,000 eligible minor league plaintiffs, about 2,000 opted into the FLSA collective in this lawsuit.

To reach class certification, the plaintiffs narrowed the classes to only include players that participated in Spring Training in Florida and Arizona, and those who had played in teams based in California. The Ninth Circuit held that these narrowed classes survived the “predominance” requirement and certified them. For similar reasoning, the court affirmed the FLSA collective’s certification.

Minor Leaguers are More Than Seasonal Workers

Minor League players are often asked to work overtime—often 60 to 70 hours during the season. Additionally, these players work during the offseason, either by attending spring training or in offseason instructional leagues to maintain their level of training. This lack of a livable wage or overtime pay has led many of the world’s best baseball players to pack six players into two or three-room apartments and sleep on air mattresses. These conditions differ drastically from the MLB, whose minimum salary is mandated at $500,000.

Surviving the COVID Curveball

These problems have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which canceled the entire 2020 MiLB season. At the beginning of the pandemic in March, there was no guarantee that the players would be paid for the canceled season. This possibility was especially catastrophic because the players were still technically under contract and as a result could not collect unemployment benefits. Next, MLB clubs released hundreds of minor leaguers, effectively ending their baseball careers. With tensions already running high, this lawsuit is sure to be at the forefront of ongoing negotiations between the MLB and MiLB.

Now that the lawsuit has passed class certification, it can proceed to the merits of the case. This lawsuit has the potential to alter the pay structure of a $10.7 billion industry. Minor leaguers will look to hit it out of the park and secure living wages for their professional efforts.

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