Minor league baseball players fight for unemployment rights

If the MLB Draft is a time to watch the miners with excitement, 2020 offered the opposite.

The minor league season hasn’t been canceled but now looks quite unlikely. The franchises are stuck in limbo, with little joy to be found in a project scaled down to five rounds. As for players already in the minors, the past few weeks have been full of angst: hundreds were released at the end of May, and for those who remain, the financial outlook is uncertain. Most clubs have decided to continue weekly payments of $400 at least until the end of June – a handful have signed up for the full season – but many players are still struggling, with no idea what’s next. follow for them or for baseball.

Of course, insecurity and low wages are nothing new here, and a handful of groups have sprung up in recent years to help navigate the difficulties of minor league life. Now, some of these groups have banded together to direct players to a resource that is new to them: unemployment benefits.

“Most baseball players don’t even know these benefits are available to them,” says Garrett Broshuis, an attorney and co-founder of a coalition called Advocates for Minor Leaguers, which is one of the groups trying to inform players on unemployment benefits. “But there’s been a real response, with a lot of guys joining, because there’s a real need there.”

Generally, minor league players are not eligible for unemployment benefits. (In some states, they are explicitly prohibited from filing.) MLB has sought for years to classify them as “seasonal apprentices” rather than “employees”; they were officially exempted from minimum wage and overtime laws with the Save America’s Pastime Act in 2018. In March, however, federal legislation expanded the group of workers eligible for unemployment to include those such as workers at demand and independent contractors. It also opened the door to minor leaguers.

“Congress has tried to include people who don’t qualify as employees,” says William Gould IV, former chairman of the National Labor Relations Board and professor emeritus of labor law at Stanford Law School. “So I think they should be able to deposit and collect.”

The process of applying for unemployment benefits can be confusing for anyone. But for minor leaguers — who can spend spring training in one state, start the season in another, get promoted in a third, be contracted to a major league club based in a fourth, and call home whatever leaves in a fifth – this can be particularly busy. Last Friday, a website was therefore launched with information for players on how to deposit, with a series of seminars planned to cover the details via Zoom. It was a joint effort of three groups: Broshuis’ Advocates for Minor Leaguers, which pushes for better conditions among minors; More Than Baseball, a non-profit organization that provides a variety of resources directly to players; and Driveline, the data-driven baseball coaching hub.

Each group is trying to help minor league players in their own way, plugging holes in a system that has always had loopholes for guys to slip through. But it gave them a chance to unite, combine their resources, and connect with more players.

“There’s no downside to creating a community of people who love baseball, who love minor league baseball, who want these players to succeed on and off the field,” said More Executive Director Jeremy Wolf. Than Baseball.

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It all started when Driveline CEO Mike Rathwell learned about the CARES Act and wondered if players who train with him were also eligible to claim benefits. With the law’s expanded payout — an additional $600 a week through July 31, which is above minimum wage at all minors levels, as well as more than MLB teams’ current payments of $400 — it was money that could make a real difference. But when Rathwell tried to come up with a definitive answer on player eligibility, there was none. So he contacted Advocates for Minor Leaguers and More Than Baseball, thinking one of them might be able to share some information. It turned out that the two had already researched the topic and compiled resources. And Rathwell had ideas for how to break down their results for the minor leaguers.

“It’s similar to the way we train baseball players – to take complex subjects and make them as simple as possible for the athlete to go and perform,” Rathwell explains.

He built the website to present all of their information in one place, step by step. The recommendation is for a player to deposit in the state they played the most in the last year, and if that doesn’t work, deposit in the state they played the second most in, followed by the state of their major league club, then by their home state, if necessary. This seems like the right approach for Gould, with the caveat that not all states see player demands the same way: “There could be state systems that would be hostile to a more inclusive interpretation with workers of gig, independent contractors and atypical workers,” he says. “But I think, as a basic proposition, they should be able to file.”

Within hours of the site going live last week, 2,000 users had accessed it. Broshuis’ first Zoom session to discuss the process drew around 100 players, and a second earlier this week did much the same. “There is the fear that there will be some kind of retaliation for having access to unemployment benefits,” he says. “There’s a misunderstanding of how to do it, if you really qualify, and overcoming all these hurdles is a real hurdle.”

This job may seem more suited to the Broshuis advocacy group and Wolf’s non-profit organization than Rathwell’s gymnasium. But, given the realities of the player development system, it affects them all.

“Generally our stuff comes down to – are we doing the best job we can to make sure our athletes are as good as they can be? That’s Driveline’s job,” says Rathwell. “And so to that end, it’s weird that other jobs, like helping them realize they’re eligible for unemployment, come up against that. But if you’re operating in a place where you have to sleep with eight other guy in a two-bedroom apartment and doing all these other things that are part of the minor league lifestyle, in that a little extra money in there can be the divider between a good result and a bad result on the playground – I think that’s very true.

It’s not hard to see how a few weeks of unemployment benefits could be that splitter. That would be more than most will ever see in the minors, where weekly salaries are just $290 for Class-A and $500 for Triple-A, but it would come at a time when players are facing challenges. unusual costs for the summer. When baseball is active, players have two meals a day covered. They don’t have to worry about money for a training center or physical therapy. Now, with the season on hiatus, they have to pay for all of that on their own, plus the usual necessities that already weigh on a meager paycheck.

There is no way to ensure that players will receive this money. (In many states, unemployment systems are lagging and overwhelmed.) But simply letting them know their choices is a start.

“Just having information available to players reduces stress,” says Wolf. “And that allows players to focus more on their work.”

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