MLB’s teams need to pay their concession workers, too

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On March 17, Major League Baseball announced that each of its 30 teams would set aside $1 million to pay stadium workers during the postponement of the 2020 regular season. With the COVID-19 pandemic here for an indefinite stay, it’s unknown when America, never mind MLB, will be able to return to business as usual. That $1 million is a start toward making sure those sports workers impacted by the postponement of the season — who usually make less than $15 an hour — are taken care of.

The emphasis there, though, should be on how this is a start. That $1 million per team isn’t going to last very long, not with the sheer volume of employees needed to run a stadium on an administrative level and to keep its grounds in order. Outside of that, though, are also tens of thousands of concessions workers. While MLB and its teams pulled in positive press for the headline-worthy assistance package worth $30 million, it doesn’t even begin to cover all of the workers that make live baseball possible.

Concessions workers are subcontracted by teams like the Boston Red Sox. In the case of the Sox and their home stadium, Fenway Park, those concessioners are Aramark employees who work for the Sox. Their checks are signed by Aramark, but made possible by the catering company’s lucrative contract with the Red Sox. They’re not direct employees, but these concessioners work at Fenway Park, home of the Red Sox, and are therefore reliant on the team for work and pay. With the season postponed, and the possibility that there won’t be any fans allowed in attendance even if MLB does somehow lift the postponement, these concessioners are likely out of work for 2020 no matter what happens with the pandemic’s spread and infection rate.

This is why UNITE HERE, the union representing these concessioners, last month launched a petition and released a video encouraging the teams to do the right thing and contribute to the well-being of these wage workers, who were left to fend for themselves at a time when jobs are going to be nearly impossible to come by. Who is hiring during a pandemic, besides the places most likely to be putting their workers on the dangerous front lines, like in grocery stores? And it’s not as if there are enough of even those low-paying, high-risk jobs to go around: Fenway Park employs 1,300 concessioners, and that’s not an abnormal figure for an MLB team.

UNITE’s campaign worked with the Red Sox: the team and its owner, John Henry, included another $500,000 in assistance meant specifically for these concessioners. It’s succeeded in other markets, too, not just that of UNITE HERE Local 26’s workers in Boston: the Miami Marlins (undisclosed sum) and San Francisco Giants ($700,000) have also bumped up their contributions to include subcontractors.

Some teams have taken partial measures.  The San Diego Padres are splitting up $200,000 of the $1 million pledged by the team to Aramark concessioners, cleaning staff, ticket vendors, and so on.

That Padres deal is obviously lacking, since it’s not more pledged money, just smaller pieces of the $1 million initially promised but for more people, and only a tiny fraction of the total for the subcontractors at that, but things can be much worse. The New York Mets created a $1.2 million program forcing workers to apply for hardship assistance, and there is no guarantee the team will actually accept or pay out on those applications… or that the subcontractors will even have a cent of the fund left for them:

Notably, the Mets did not include subcontracted ballpark workers among those eligible to fill out the application, which the team says will be released on April 7, nearly two weeks after the team’s initially scheduled Opening Day. However, the Mets stated that employees staffed through ballpark operations partners Aramark, Alliance and Impark would receive the “remainder” of the money left in the fund. When these workers would receive money and how much they will be left with is presently unclear.

The Mets, by the way, sent out an email to their fans on April 7, signed by team COO Jeff Wilpon — yes, the same day they released those excluded subcontractors — bragging about the meager handout they did publicize.

There is also total silence from other organizations, such as the Philadelphia Phillies. Philadelphia’s concessions setup encompasses three different sports venues: the Wells Fargo Center, shared by the National Hockey League’s Flyers and National Basketball Association’s 76ers; Lincoln Financial Field for the National Football League’s Eagles; and Citizen’s Bank Park MLB’s Phillies. Aramark’s concessioners, represented by UNITE HERE Local 274, were nearing the end of the NHL and NBA seasons, getting ready to shift full-time to the Phillies’ 81 home games for 2020. Instead, they’re at home right now, and without work: the Phillies haven’t agreed to open up their wallets to support these year-round, full-time concessioners during their team’s turn with them. Those wallets, by the way, are substantial: Phillies’ principal owner John S. Middleton has a net worth of $3 billion, and with a 48 percent stake, he’s just one of many rich folks able to afford a piece of the team.

Barbara, an Aramark concessioner who spends time at all three Philadelphia venues, explained how the lack of assistance from the Phillies will impact her and her family. “It is a second job, but it sometimes feels like a full-time job with the hours. Even though I have another full-time job, this one is just as important to sustaining my family. It helped me to purchase a home. It’s helped me to maintain and basically survive. And I know that my personal situation may not be as bad as someone else where this is their only job, and I know a lot of people in that employment situation. I’m obviously working a second job for a reason, though.”

A second job doesn’t mean it’s making Barbara or her coworkers rich, either: it’s often necessary to get by, as she would discuss. “Especially at Citizen’s Bank Park, there are people who work in the school system during the school year, and then they work concessions in the summer time because they’re not receiving a check from the school district.” The average salary for a teacher in Philadelphia, as with teachers anywhere, is in need of supplementing. Salaries reported on Glassdoor for Philly’s teachers come in as low as $33,000 per year: that summertime concessions job, as underpaid as it might be, makes all the difference for those workers at that end of the salary spectrum.

Concessions workers are far from what you might see in television (NBC’s surprisingly realistic and pro-labor Superstore excepted, anyway) or movies, where teens work every minimum-wage job in existence. As Barbara told it, her coworkers are teens, sure, but also those aforementioned teachers, adult mothers like her looking provide for their children, college students trying to get by while school is out, seniors supplementing whatever meager income and assistance they’re able to pull in: it takes all kinds to make sure a live sporting event goes smoothly, and right now, none of those kinds are being paid if they’re subcontractors from Philly.

What’s incredible about the silence of the Phillies (and the Flyers and 76ers, whose seasons have also been postponed and workers impacted) is that it isn’t just UNITE HERE and its concessioner members pressuring them to pay during this sports stoppage. Philadelphia’s city council even penned a letter to these team executives, taking the side of the workers:

“Nevertheless, based upon conversations with hourly workers at locations such as the stadium complex, it is clear that we must do more to support Philadelphians, especially workers who have suddenly and indefinitely lost income. We will continue to ramp up intergovernmental efforts to expand support for such workers. At the same time, we urge you to work cooperatively with Aramark to help employees to offset lost compensation by providing shutdown pay and maintaining benefits. Our understanding is that Aramark manages concessions on a fee basis but passes along costs including labor costs, which would readily lend itself to an arrangement with your organizations as its clients.”

The letter, dated March 20, hasn’t changed the lack of assistance for Barbara and her hundreds and hundreds of coworkers.

It’s not just Philadelphia, of course. The Baltimore Orioles, Los Angeles Angels, and Los Angeles Dodgers haven’t pledged more for their workers, and even the Washington Nationals — a team currently flush with the extra revenue that winning the 2019 World Series provided — has not promised additional funding.

What will it take to change the teams’ minds, and get them to pay for all of the workers under their employ, and not just the ones they can argue are legally, in the most technical sense, their own employees? MLB teams can afford to pay these workers — that’s not in question, even if the teams themselves have said it’s “complicated” to do so. The league has seen record profits in 17 consecutive seasons, including $10.7 billion from the 2019 season alone. Nearly two-thirds of the principal owners of MLB’s 30 teams are billionaires, and the average MLB team is now valued at $1.8 billion. So, what’s needed is more pressure, more awareness, more solidarity behind the workers to force these teams to spend the money they have on those who need it. It’s what got UNITE HERE in Boston and San Diego and San Francisco their support, and more of that, in more places, is what it will take for the rest of these thousands and thousands of workers to get what they need to survive the pandemic.

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