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Judge: Minor League Baseball Players Are Employees, not Apprentices

By Richard Dahl | Last updated on

Major League Baseball is awash in money.

The average team is worth $2.2 billion. The average player makes $4.17 million per year, and 45 of them make at least $20 million. And now that MLB and the MLB Players Association union settled their differences and inked a new collective bargaining agreement, the minimum player salary increases from $570,500 to $700,000.

The lower levels of professional baseball are quite another matter, however. All MLB teams operate several minor-league teams to develop talent, and the players on those teams earn between $8,000 and $14,000 per year. Last year, members of the Baltimore Orioles' Double-A team, the Bowie Baysox, contemplated sleeping in their cars because they were spending 80% of their paychecks on the team hotel.

It is an unjust system held together by MLB and its teams, who argue that minor leaguers are seasonal workers who are more like apprentices than employees. MLB relies on minor leaguers' acceptance of the poor pay and poor conditions because if they make it to "The Show" they can become rich.

MLB Gets Brushed Back, Must Pay

On March 15, however, a federal judge issued a ruling that could dramatically change the way professional baseball compensates the minor leaguers. In a 181-page ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Joseph Spero concluded that minor leaguers are employees under federal labor law. He ruled that MLB and individual minor-league franchises jointly employ the players and must compensate them for time spent for travel and preseason practice.

Spero ruled that MLB violated Arizona state minimum wage laws and is liable for triple damages. He also ruled that MLB did not comply with California wage statement requirements and awarded $1,882,650 in penalties to plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit.

He rejected MLB motions for summary judgment and allowed the plaintiffs' claims about underpayment to proceed in a trial set to start June 1. Unless the parties settle before then, the trial will determine the amount of damages MLB must pay.

The ruling focuses on minor leaguers in Arizona, California, and Florida, but it raises the question of what the broader impact may be. Now that a judge ruled that MLB is liable for back wages of a group of players who weren't paid, what might that mean for current and future players throughout the minor leagues?

MLB Feels the Heat

The case, Senne v. MLB, has been percolating since 2014. Forty-four former players filed the lawsuit, claiming that MLB violated the federal Fair Labor Standards Act and state minimum wage and overtime requirements for workweeks that were often 50 to 60 hours long. The plaintiffs won class-action status in 2019 and survived an effort by MLB to reject the class when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the plaintiffs' favor the following year. The lawsuit now covers thousands of current and former minor leaguers in Arizona, California, and Florida. Those are the states where MLB teams conduct spring training, and the teams historically don't issue paychecks during that time.

MLB has been feeling the heat from the Senne lawsuit and bad press about its minor-league tightfistedness for years. Responding to the pressure, MLB turned to Congress for protection and in 2018 they got it. The Save America's Pastime Act exempted minor-league players from federal minimum-wage and overtime laws, a move that MLB and the owners said was necessary to avoid cutting the number of minor-league teams.

Then, in 2020, MLB went ahead and axed 42 minor-league teams anyway, leaving 120 standing. They also began to take meager steps to improve pay, if ever so slightly, for minor leaguers. Last year, the minimum weekly pay for Class A players increased from $290 (that is not a misprint) to $500. The pay for Double-A players increased from $350 to $600. For Triple-A players, who are one stop from the major leagues, it increased from $502 to $700.

Perhaps embarrassed by stories like the one about Bowie Baysox players living out of their cars, MLB this year is mandating that minor-league teams provide housing for the players. (We'll see how that goes.)

Fans Losing Interest

Meanwhile, baseball might have a bigger problem than how it intends to pay minor leaguers: Its popularity is plummeting.

In December, Seton Hall University released a poll showing that 30% of baseball fans and 44% of avid fans said they would have "less interest" in the game when the lockout ends and the games resume. (The lockout ended March 10.)

The game has become a snoozefest. In 2021, the average MLB game was 3:10, the longest ever. There's too little action, too many pitching changes, too much dawdling by pitchers and hitters alike. The game is crying out for major reforms. So maybe MLB should just pay the minor leaguers adequately and direct their attention to shoring up their declining product.

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