Major League Baseball Has a Wage Theft Problem

Michael Arria

The MLB's gross revenue has increased around 264% in the last 18 years, yet wage theft cases seem to be spiking. (Keith Allison/Flickr)

With Yankee shortstop Derek Jeter’s retirement, the end of the Kansas City Royals’ lengthy playoff drought, and the yearly shift to the playoffs, Major League Baseball has seen an increase in national coverage lately, despite the NFL’s numerous scandals swallowing up the bulk of most sports segments. The uptick in attention stands in contrast to the more commonly-held perception that baseball’s popularity and cultural impact are dwindling.

The key numbers in assessing the MLB’s economic fortunes are its television revenues: according to an anonymous source who spoke to Forbes at the end of 2013, professional baseball took in between $8-$8.5 billion last year. In the last 18 years, the league’s gross revenue has increased by around 264 percent. The average MLB team is now worth around $811 million, a 9 percent increase from last year.

Keep those numbers in the back of your mind, then, when considering that the Oakland Athletics recently reached a settlement with the US Department of Labor (DOL), agreeing to pay $266,358 to 86, former and current, team employees — stolen wages from those workers. According to the government, clubhouse workers were sometimes given $70 a day regardless of how many hours they worked, dropping their rate below the federal minimum. Interns were also occasionally paid less than the required $7.25 an hour.

The Athletics’ settlement is the fourth of its kind to hit Major League Baseball. The San Francisco Giants have been investigated for wage violations twice: they paid out $544,715 in 2013, then $220,793 this year. The Miami Marlins back wages totaled $288,290. The Baltimore Orioles are currently being investigated.

As is usually the case with professional sports teams’ owners, the heads of these teams accused of wage theft aren’t exactly hurting. One of the Athletics’ owners is John Fisher, son of the founders of The Gap and worth about $2.6 billion. The principal owner of the Giants is Charles Johnson, worth $6.2 billion. Jeff Loria, who owns the Marlin, is said to be worth around $500 million.

The MLB seems well aware that this problem is potentially widespread. After filing an FOIA request, the labor news site FairWarning obtained a memo from MLB’s commissioner’s office, requesting that teams look into whether or not they are complying by wage regulations. The DOL believes that the issues it has identified are endemic to our industry,” the memo explains.

That memo was delivered shortly before the most glaring baseball labor controversy of the year at Wrigley Field this past August when the Chicago Cubs attempted to use an understaffed grounds crew to cover the field during a rain delay in a game against the San Francisco Giants. After the game was called for the Cubs, the Giants protested the ruling and were allowed to resume the game from the point it began raining later in the season. It was the first upheld protest in Major League Baseball since 1986.

After the tarp disaster, it was revealed that the Cubs had sent ten members of the grounds crew home before it started pouring to keep their seasonal employees under 130 hours, thus avoiding the Affordable Healthcare Act requirement to provide them with health insurance.

Despite their storied history of losses, the Chicago Cubs made $266 million in 2013, putting their value at around $1.2 billion. The billionaire Ricketts family, who secured their fortune after the father, Joe Ricketts, founded TD Ameritrade, own 95 percent of the team.

Economic analysis of professional sports tends to focus on teams’ payrolls and the players’ while leaving out the thousands of workers who make the games possible. Major League Baseball appears to have a labor problem. The question is, what is the league going to do about it?

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Michael Arria is the U.S. correspondent for Mondoweiss. Follow him on Twitter: @michaelarria.
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