Lawsuit seeks fair pay for minor leaguers

Josh Wilkie found himself living with 11 other guys in a three-bedroom apartment. Some slept on futons. Some slept on the floor. None of them slept comfortably.

They’d make french fries on the stove, because what else are you going to eat when you’re, effectively, making $4.11 an hour?

“It was a joke,” said Wilkie, who spent seven years in the Washington Nationals system and four years at the Triple-A level. “We’re not high school kids at camp. We’re in our mid-20s; we had one guy in his early 30s. It was sad. It was really depressing.”

A small percentage of minor leaguers receive signing bonuses in the millions, and veterans can make as much as $25,000 a month, according to Baseball America. But without the protection of the Major League Baseball Player’s Association, a majority of the approximately 5,000 U.S.-based minor leaguers – players needed to fill out rosters to properly hone the skills of the future major leaguers – are working for as little as $1,150 per month, just $160 above the federal poverty line. Figuring 10-hour days, 28 days a month, that’s $4.11 an hour, well below the $7.25 federal minimum wage. First-year Triple-A players can make as little as $2,150 a month, one step from the majors with its minimum salary of approximately $2,800 per day.

This is reality for many minor league baseball players stuck in the quandary of being elite but not elite enough to be on a major league roster: Working for less than minimum wage and having no guarantee of a future in baseball.

A group of minor leaguers is pursuing a class-action lawsuit claiming that MLB denies minor league players a minimum wage and overtime in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act. Professional baseball’s position is that it is already providing $500 million in various forms to support minor leaguers. The jobs are apprenticeships and not subject to the Fair Labor Standards Act, and raising the salaries to meet minimum wage could result in a drastic cut in the number of minor league teams and negatively impact communities that have invested in them, according to Stan Brand, vice president of minor league baseball.

Trading punches

Garrett Broshuis pitched for six seasons in the minor leagues after being drafted by the San Francisco Giants in the fifth round of the 2004 draft. He never made it higher than Triple-A, and his career ERA of 4.10 is far from inspiring. But along the way, he noticed something that he couldn’t shake.

Some of his teammates were barely surviving.

“I played with a player who wouldn’t eat breakfast because he didn’t want to pay for it,” Broshuis said. “Guys have to either borrow money from their girlfriend, borrow money from their parents or run up credit card debt. I played with a player that would be getting calls from debt collectors on road trips.”

Broshuis, an attorney with Korein Tillery in St. Louis, gathered three former minor league players – Aaron Senne, Michael Liberto and Oliver Odle – and filed Senne v. Office of Major League Baseball in February 2014, alleging that the minor league system denies players a minimum wage and overtime in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act.

Several months after the lawsuit was filed, the case had 43 main plaintiffs. It became a class-action lawsuit over the winter, and about 2,300 individuals have joined the suit.

MLB pushed back in July. On June 30, U.S. Reps. Brett Guthrie, R-Ky., and Cheri Bustos, D-Ill., introduced the Save America’s Pastime Act, which states that minor league baseball players are exempt from the Fair Labor Standards Act. MLB quickly endorsed the bipartisan proposal. (Within 24 hours, Bustos withdrew her support for the legislation after receiving a large amount of pushback.)

MLB notes the challenges in applying hourly work standards to minor league baseball. If a player takes extra batting practice, does he need to be paid for it? Does he get paid for his time eating lunch in the clubhouse? Is traveling to games a commute or work?

MLB is responsible for paying the salaries of its minor league players, while the minor league clubs are responsible for paying their employees. According toBrand, MLB spends “upwards of half a billion dollars” on player development in the minor leagues – salaries, signing bonuses, manager salaries, training costs, healthcare, per diem.

“The major leagues are very interested in their welfare, which is why they spend half a billion dollars on them and have trainers and other medical insurance and other things to make sure they are taken care of,” he said.

Higher costs could be problematic, Brand said.

“The economic model for minor league baseball is based largely on the subsidy (of) the major leagues paying player salaries,” Brand said. “If that changes dramatically in a way that increases their costs and forces them to re-examine the level of support they have for the minor leagues, I think that threatens the viability of minor league baseball at the roots level.”

Brand said he was unable to define what designates a “dramatic” change, in large part because there is no definition for what “work time” would mean if the lawsuit were successful.

“The lawsuit challenges the major league clubs on a number of bases, alleging that time on the bus, time in the clubhouse, eating lunch, all this time they spend not directly playing baseball but with other activities is part of their work,” he said. “If that is upheld in court, that’s hundreds of millions of dollars that Major League Baseball would theoretically have to pay.”

Brand would not specify how he came up with the hundreds of millions of dollars figure.

Major league teams could give a $1,000 raise to each of their minor leaguers for less than many spend on a free agent to be a reserve.

MLB entered the 2015 season with revenue approaching $9.5 billion, according to Forbes. However, Brand said he “doesn’t know how meaningful” that number is.

“Every business has a worth,” he said. “That doesn’t translate into what it can afford to pay labor, necessarily.”

Cutting the roots?

Brand said the first place MLB would look to make cuts would be at the lowest levels of the minor leagues.

Enter the South Bend Cubs.

South Bend has been home to minor league baseball since 1988, when the Single-A affiliate of the Chicago White Sox began playing in the heart of the downtown area. While the parent club has changed, baseball has been a focal point of the downtown area for decades.

What if it were to all go away?

“We’ve made a significant investment in our community to a facility that would largely sit vacant or dormant. That’s the biggest downside,” said Jeff Rea, president and CEO of the St. Joseph Chamber of Commerce. “It’s been a good rallying piece for our community. We can all buy into our team.

“There’s been a little bit of an intrinsic value in terms of the pride that goes along with it. It’s our team, it’s our region’s team. Everybody owns it a little bit.”

The South Bend franchise has 17 full-time employees and 90 seasonal employees, and the team’s revenue increased 65 percent from the 2014 season to 2015, after changing its affiliation from Arizona to the Chicago Cubs.

“The ballpark is one of those elements that adds to the attractiveness of the (downtown) area,” Rea said. “If you’re thinking about moving your office there, you’re thinking about doing a condo or apartment, the ballpark is a real plus for those kinds of things.”

Dick Nussbaum, president of the Single-A Midwestern League, which the South Bend Cubs are a part of, said if the players’ lawsuit were to cause change, the 16 teams in his league would feel the brunt of the impact.

“A real possibility is that (the league) would be reduced by some number,” Nussbaum said. “Whether that’s two, four, six, eight, I can’t tell you at this point, but it’s a real concern for us.”

He said an increase in player salaries could “benefit a very limited number of minor league players, but it’s going to have a devastating impact on hundreds of (workers). They’re not going to have a team there. If there’s not a team there, they’re not going to have a job.”

It’s also possible minor league communities would have to find money to pay off stadiums they financed with revenue expected to be generated by the teams.

Where players, MLB and lawmakers will go from here is unclear.

“The bill is still alive, and there are a lot of minor leaguers still concerned about it,” said Broshuis. The trial is scheduled for February 2017.

Despite pushback, MLB has doubled down on its stance. Commissioner Robert Manfred said applying traditional overtime work rules to minor league players “makes no sense.”

“The administrative burden associated with the application of these laws to professional athletes that were never intended to apply to professional athletes is the real issue,” Manfred said at an annual meeting with the Baseball Writers’ Association of America in July. “And the litigation is going to run its course, but I have to tell you this is the area where excessive regulation could have a really dramatic impact on the size of minor league baseball.”

Brand said that if the lawsuit succeeds, it could cost MLB “hundreds of millions of dollars.”

Broshuis said the “argument that it’s going to bankrupt the major leagues is simply not true.”

Senne agreed, citing MLB’s revenue stream.


“Being able to compensate each player in their minor league system the minimum wage for the hours they’re putting in would not make enough of a dent in their revenue to justify needing to remove teams or leagues,” he said.- by Matthew VanTryon, Corpus Christi Caller-Times