MLB looks to skirt Arizona minimum wage, overtime laws
PHOENIX — A key House Republican is proposing to let baseball teams work their minor league players as much as they want without having to worry about overtime — or, in some cases, paying them at all.
The proposal by Rep. T.J. Shope, R-Coolidge, seeks to craft an exemption into the minimum wage laws adopted by voters in 2006 and just updated in 2016. Those laws not only require that virtually anyone working in Arizona be paid at least $11 an hour for their time on the job — $12 by next year — but that they also get paid time off for sick leave.
And if the state’s minimum wage laws don’t apply to baseball players, that leaves them subject only to federal law.
Last year lobbyists for Major League Baseball pushed a measure through Congress dubbed the “Saving America’s Pastime Act’’ which exempts teams from all federal wage laws as long as they pay the players at least $290 a week. That’s the equivalent to $7.25 an hour for a 40-hour week — but with a specific exemption from overtime, meaning they can force the players to work as many hours as they want for that $290.
That change was buried on page 1,967 of a $1.3 trillion spending bill signed into law by President Trump.
Shope, the House speaker pro-tem, said he is sponsoring HB 2180 at the behest of lobbyists here for Major League Baseball. He said they told him there are reasons that it makes no sense to try to reduce player pay to an hourly basis.
Anyway, he said, there’s a good reason to treat these minor league players different than their big-league cousins.
“Oftentimes, since they’re trying out, they haven’t made the team yet, they don’t have a contract,’’ Shope said.
The only explanation provided by MLB spokesman Pat Courtney is that there is a need to exempt the teams from the wage law because of “a very specific problem.’’
For example, he said, players seeking to impress coaches may come in for extra batting or pitching practice.
``Are you paid for that?’’ he asked, leaving aside the question of keeping track of the hours.
And Courtney said, the voter-approved law already contains some exemptions.
But those are generally limited to babysitters and people employed by their own families.
There also is a carve-out for waiters and others who get tips, allowing them to be paid $3 an hour less. But that applies only if those tips bring them up to the minimum.
Garrett Broshuis who represents minor league players said it’s not just a question of teams wanting to pay players just the minimum wage for all the hours they work. It’s a question of being paid at all.
“These players are required to work a month or more each spring training ... yet they aren’t being paid for that work,’’ Broshuis said, because of the way the federal law was crafted to exempt paying players for time outside the regular season. “Just because you’re in spring training doesn’t mean that your bills stop.’’
Overall, he said, most minor league players earn between $3,000 and $7,500 for the entire year despite routinely working more than 50 hours a week — and sometimes more than 70 — during the five-month season.
Courtney countered that it isn’t just the minor leaguers who get no salary during the months before the regular season starts. He said the same is true of those who have made it to the major clubs, with everyone simply getting a stipend for room and board during the off season.
The difference, said Broshuis, is that major leaguers have contracts with much larger salaries.
Broshuis, who also was a minor league player before going into law, also said Shope is off base in his claim that these minor league players are essentially just job applicants.
“You have to be signed to an employment contract, called the Minor League Uniform Player Contract, in order to be at spring training,’’ he said. “That’s in the Major League rules.’’
And Broshuis said that for most players, it’s their original contract. And the rules say that first minor league contract lasts for seven seasons, a move that allows teams to protect talent as they develop it.
The bigger issue, he said, is that the whole purpose behind minimum wage laws is to protect workers from employers who would “take advantage of them.’’
And if nothing else, Broshuis said the legislation “directly thwarts the will of the Arizona people’’ who voted in 2006 to have a state minimum wage higher than the federal floor, and again in 2016 to raise that eventually to $12 an hour.
“Here you have an industry of billionaire baseball owners who don’t want to comply with basic minimum wage requirements,’’ he said. “They’re trying to lock in a system that dates back to the 1900s.’’
He’s not the only one who takes that position. Tomas Robles who was the chairman of the organization that convinced voters in 2016 to approve the latest wage hike, called the proposal “baffling.’’
“It’s shows just how greedy some people can be,’’ he said.
“Many of these minor league baseball players are paid nowhere near a livable wage as it is,’’ Robles continued, even at the current $11-an-hour requirement. And Robles said players are “left with nothing if they don’t make it to the major leagues.’’
Aside from philosophical opposition, Robles has something that gives him additional political muscle to quash the plan.
Because the minimum wage law was approved at the ballot, the Arizona Constitution pretty much bars lawmakers from repealing or amending it.
The only permitted changes are those that “further the purpose’’ of the underlying law. Robles said there is no way that allowing baseball owners to pay players less meets that legal definition.
Courtney disagreed, saying new exemptions do further the purpose.
But if legislative lawyers disagree, the only option for MLB would be to ask voters to approve the change, something that could prove politically difficult.
One side effect of the Shope legislation, if approved, is it could undermine efforts by Broshuis pursue litigation against Major League Baseball over the salaries of minor league players, some of whom are paid as little as $1,100 a month — and only for the five-month regular season.
A judge had agreed to allow class-action litigation to proceed for players in the California minor leagues. But the judge refused to grant similar status for players in Arizona and Florida minor leagues.
Broshuis has asked the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to review.