The Washington Post reported on March 19 that Congress was considering adding a provision to its estimated $1.3 trillion spending package that would exempt minor league baseball players from the Fair Labor Standards Act.
If the provision was added and the spending package passed and signed into law, it would kill a lawsuit filed on behalf of minor league players that is currently under appeal in the Ninth Circuit Court in California.
Both Major League Baseball and Minor League Baseball have spent years lobbying Congress to add a provision that explicitly states that minor league baseball players are classified as seasonal workers. Seasonal workers are exempt from FLSA requirements for minimum wage and overtime rules. In court, MLB and MiLB have already argued that players are seasonal employees, but this provision would eliminate the legal dispute by cementing that distinction into law.
“When the lawsuit came out two or three years ago,” MiLB president Pat O’Conner said on March 19, “we started to put a strategy together. We’ve been lobbying Congress since June of 2016 . . . We had 94 people in Washington in June of 2016 walking the halls, talking to the elected officials.”
The chief players involved in those efforts are O’Conner, MiLB deputy general counsel Robert Fountain, MiLB vice president Stan Brand and assorted team owners. The group has met with, among others, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Representative Brett Guthrie (R-Ky.), Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Senator Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.).
When O’Conner and his staff get in the room with members of Congress and make their pitch for why the exemption to the FLSA needs to be granted, their case is based on the idea that if the costs of paying the thousands of minor league players across the country were to rise, the minor leagues as currently constructed would come under serious threat.
“To me, it’s fairly simple,” O’Conner said. “If Major League Baseball experiences a tremendous increase in its cost of labor, it will reduce the number of players it offers to Minor League Baseball, or it will come to Minor League Baseball and expect us to pay a portion of that increase in cost. Either one of those are catastrophic to our business model.”
The provision to the bill, which needed to be passed by Friday, March 23 to avoid a government shutdown, appears to have bipartisan support. O’Conner said in his talks with Schumer, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), only Pelosi expressed opposition.
“We had three of the four corners of leadership willing to go along with the bill,” O’Conner said.
Salaries for minor league players have stayed relatively static over the past few decades, and players today are paid as little as $1,100 per month at the lowest levels of the minor leagues. They are also paid only for their work in-season, and not for spring training or instructional league.
Phillies outfielder Dylan Cozens, the winner of MiLB’s Joe Bauman Award in 2016 for leading the sport in home runs, received an $8,000 check as part of his prize. The money, he said at the award ceremony, was nearly what he made for the entire season.
If the players’ pay were to go up, O’Conner said, it might mean the contraction of teams or entire leagues.
“If the cost of that talent is doubled or tripled, which could happen under an FLSA basis, MLB is not going to pay that much money for the talent,” he said. “They’re not going to pay. They’re going to do one of two things: They’re going to say, ‘If 160 (minor league) teams is going to cost (this much), we’re just going to cut down on the number of teams. We’re not going to pay for 160. We’ll pay for 80. We’ll pay for 100.’
“Then the other 60 or 80 that are left without players, if they want to stay in business, they’re going to have pay for their own players . . . You might lose half of the (league). You don’t know. You might lose leagues. You might lose cities in leagues. Nobody knows, but the fact of the matter is one of two things is very likely to happen: MLB is either going to cut back on the number of teams it provides, or (MiLB) is going to have to start paying salaries.”
MLB is currently responsible for all player salaries from the major leagues down to the Rookie levels. Minor league teams are responsible for paying their employees only. That means front-office workers, ticket-takers, ushers, announcers and the other game-day staff.
If the cost of paying players were passed on to the minor league teams and added to their ledger, they might not be able to afford to stay in business. And if those teams went out of business, then there would be fewer minor leaguers overall, O’Connor’s argument goes.
“Under this (lawsuit), they think that they’re doing the players a favor. If the players win this lawsuit, it’s going to cost them player jobs,” O’Conner said. “And if the players win this lawsuit, it’s going to cost minor league cities their baseball teams, and it’s going to cost governments who have built these stadiums, they’re going to go dark . . . This has a chance to wipe out half of minor league baseball in the United States.”
Garrett Broshuis, a former minor league pitcher for the Giants who now is an attorney representing players in the lawsuit, said he would expect that the effect on teams would be quite minimal if the lawsuit was successful. It would be quite significant in what it would do for players’ wages.
“We’re talking about basic wage laws here, the same ones that McDonald’s and Walmart comply with,” Broshuis said. “MLB had $10 billion in revenue last year, and they can certainly afford to comply with those basic laws. They need the minor leagues to develop young talent. There would be no contraction of teams. This is simply about billionaires trying to game the system to their advantage so they can continue to exploit young players.”