Baseball considers minor league players to be seasonal apprentices, similar to musicians, artists and actors who accept low pay for a temporary period while attempting to break into the big time. M.L.B. teams sometimes pay the players less than $1,500 per month, but only for a six-month period — less than the federal minimum wage. They were previously allowed to do that because of two exemptions to the minimum wage act, one for seasonal workers and the other for creative professionals.
But M.L.B. was recently granted its own exemption in an amendment included in the $1.3 trillion federal spending bill, after baseball lobbied Congress for it. President Trump signed the bill on March 23. The amendment exempts minor league players and strips them of certain federal minimum wage protections.
That essentially nullifies the players’ lawsuit from that date forward. The original suit was filed in 2014 in U.S. District Court in San Francisco by three players who claimed that M.L.B. teams violated the Fair Labor Standards Act, including minimum wage and overtime requirements for a workweek (the plaintiffs are also seeking to be categorized as a class in order to include hundreds of more players).
Both sides were recently asked by the court how the new federal law would impact their case, and M.L.B. acknowledged that the law was not retroactive. The players are seeking damages from the beginning of their employment until the enactment of the new federal law.
The players estimate they work 50 to 60 hours per week during the regular season, and they do not get paid at all in spring training or the off-season. Major league teams also pay large signing bonuses to many, though not all, minor leaguers. According to M.L.B.’s 2016 figures, about 1,850 players received bonuses of at least $50,000 (for a total of about $440 million), which are paid out over two seasons.
Baseball, in its recent brief to the court, noted that the new exemption means it doesn’t have to pay players for each hour they are engaged in baseball related activities outside of games — weight lifting, batting practice, playing catch, etc., throughout the year.
“Payment of this minimum weekly salary during the championship season qualifies a player for the federal exemption regardless of how many hours he spends engaged in baseball related activities at any time during the calendar year,” the brief said.
Minor league players, unlike their major-league brethren, are not unionized and do not have unifying representation to bargain with the M.L.B. teams.