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It’s taken years, as these things do, but the lawsuit Senne v. MLB has been picking up wins of late. In August of last year, Senne v. MLB — full name Aaron Senne et al. v. Kansas City Royals Baseball Corp — was granted class action status, allowing players to collectively seek unpaid wages for their time playing in Minor League Baseball. As we’ve covered in this space before, minor-league players are not paid for spring training, nor for the postseason, as they are paid just during the regular season, meaning low-level players are pulling in around $1,100 per month for less than half of the year. And, thanks to Congress, they aren’t eligible for overtime despite putting in well over 40 hours per week in the season, plus whatever offseason work needs to be performed in order to thrive in-season.
Now, there’s another W to stack on top of the transition to class action status, as the Ninth Circuit court denied MLB’s appeal over that status: that means the Supreme Court is the only place left to appeal to if MLB wants to avoid going to trial.
MLB has a tough argument to make in this and a future appeal, as they’re in the wrong here. They contend that hourly wage rules shouldn’t apply to professional baseball players given the schedules involved, but unlike in the majors, where even league-minimum players pull in over half-a-million dollars per year, the minors see even players in Triple-A making under $11,000, while having to pay for housing, meals, and even their equipment — those are the best-paid of your average minor leaguers, too.
MLB’s actions for these special cases who don’t fit neatly into the hourly workforce do not look good upon closer analysis, as, instead of accounting for the extraordinary nature of the work day of a professional athlete by creating a system in which they’re still paid fairly for their time, MLB spent their time lobbying Congress to ensure they have to pay players just the federal minimum wage, for the shortest amount of time in the week and year possible, while essentially describing spring training as a tryout, not work, and minor-league jobs in general as seasonal apprenticeships, not careers.
Of course, MLB has been allowed to act like this by the federal government in the past, and I’d be lying if I told you I was confident in the Supreme Court ruling in favor of the players over the enormous corporate entity run by the billionaire class. All of that being said, though, Senne v. MLB is one step closer to getting back wages for thousands upon thousands of minor-league players, and has the potential to change how current minor-league players are treated and compensated, as well.
The angle of attack employed by Garrett Broshuis, a former minor-league players and current lawyer employed by the St. Louis law firm of Korein Tillery, has been to focus on the states. This follows Congress, an arm of the federal government, deciding how players would be paid in early 2018: states can override federal law in cases like this, and since Arizona and Florida are home to all 30 spring training teams, and Florida the home to many low-level minor-league teams and extended spring training setups, and therefore a place where a significant number of minor-league players appear each year, focusing the fight there made all kinds of sense.
“We brought the suit to the northern district of California, and what we’re basically alleging is that Minor League Baseball players are employees, like any other group of employees, and they’re covered by both state and federal wage and hour laws,” Broshuis told me back when Senne v. MLB was first granted class action status. “As such, MLB should be complying with those laws, but instead, they’re essentially ignoring them. Players are going to spring training, and they should be paid at least a minimum wage for every hour they’re working there and in the season. They should be paid accordingly, as well, but unfortunately thousands of players per year are going to spring training and extended spring training and going to instructional leagues and are just not being paid at all, so we’re trying to do something about that.”
The shift to class action status, reaffirmed by the Ninth Circuit, makes the goal of Broshuis and Senne v. MLB that much more attainable. With this change, it’s not just the 45 players attached to the suit itself that are represented any longer: this small group now represents anyone “similarly situated to them,” as Broshuis put it. “In our case, that means we now have classes that cover all of that work that’s taking place in spring training. Whenever you have thousands of players going to Arizona and Florida for spring training each year, all doing similar work, and all being paid zero dollars per hour for it, it makes sense to group all of those players together and have a case that includes all of those players together.”
MLB has obviously been fighting the suit since it was first filed in 2014, but the shift to class action is a dangerous one for them, as it’s no longer just about a few dozen former players looking for back wages: the implications and cost of a loss here are significantly larger and more expensive than they were prior to the class action designation.
Which means, of course, that MLB is nowhere near finished fighting Senne v. MLB: it would be shocking to see them avoid going to the Supreme Court to give themselves one more chance to smash this status and weaken their opposition and their case, and any potential winnings they are granted in a trial. Even a conservative SCOTUS like the one we’re dealing with might find it difficult to disagree with the rulings of the lower courts on this matter, though, given what exactly is being argued in these appeals. Emphasis on “might,” obviously.
If another round of appeals occur, and Senne v. MLB’s class action status persists once more, then a trial is the next step. Or, MLB might attempt to settle, in order to make this vanish as quickly as possible: a high-profile trial to determine whether MLB owes thousands and thousands of minor-league players unpaid wages happening at the same time that MLB is trying to dismantle one-quarter of the minors in order to avoid spending more money when player wages inevitably rise is not great for the ole public relations machine, you know.
As always, what’s needed in the end is a union for minor-league players that allows them a seat at the table and the right to bargain their salaries. In the meantime, though, Senne v. MLB is pressuring MLB to do what’s right: hopefully it inspires the current players to organize, as they shouldn’t have to be dreaming of the day they get to launch their own class action suit against MLB for unpaid wages in order to get what’s rightfully theirs.
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