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Striking Out with Unemployment Benefits: Minor League Baseball (MLB) Players Hurdle to Collect Unemployment Insurance Benefits

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MLB and its players have begun discussing a way to restart the 2020 season following the COVID-19 delay. During this process, more than 1,000 players have been released from their contracts and have become free agents according to Forbes, while others are facing uncertainty on if they will also be released from their contracts or if their season will ever get underway. Although the MLB Players Association is officially moving forward with a shortened season, this association does not represent minor league baseball players (“MiLB”). Many baseball experts speculate that the minor league season will be cancelled; however, while these discussions are underway many players remain “unemployed.”  During these uncertain times, questions surrounding MiLB players’ ability to collect unemployment have swirled. Unlike MLB players who often have multi-million-dollar contracts, MiLB players typically only make around $14,000 per season, with many of them having to turn to gig jobs to make ends meet. At the beginning of April, MLB announced that it would be paying MiLB players $400 per week, but this is a stipend and does not count as a salary. 

Yahoo Sports, The Washington Post, and many other news sources have written that MiLB players cannot apply for unemployment benefits because they are under contract, meaning they are subject to the Federal Unemployment Tax Act, subsection 3304(a). This Act stipulates that professional athletes cannot apply for unemployment benefits if they are in between seasons as long as they have reasonable certainty that they will be employed in the following season. According to the Department of Labor, an athlete has reasonable assurance of performing services in the next athletic season if there is a contract; if the employer expressed interest to the player in hiring them for the next season; or if the athlete expresses an intent to participate in the sport for the next season. There is no direct language in the contract stipulating that players cannot apply for unemployment benefits.

George Wentworth from the National Employment Law Project argues that MiLB players are eligible because they were not between seasons, instead that the season had started because the players had begun spring training. However, according to Yahoo Sports, it is ambiguous whether spring training is considered part of the official season because although many teams had started spring training, they only get paid in season and would not receive a paycheck until April. If spring training is considered part of the season, then players are able to apply for unemployment benefits because they are technically unemployed during their official season. In this case, players should apply for unemployment benefits through their state. If they are denied, they should appeal, explaining that they are unemployed during their season. The players should also be able to apply for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA). If spring training is not considered part of the season, players may still be able to make the argument that they are eligible for unemployment because they do not have reasonable certainty that they will play in a successive season. This argument is now bolstered by the multitude of teams, a full list of released players can be found on MLB Trade Rumors’ website, that have released their MiLB players in droves. 

William B Gould IV, a law professor emeritus at Stanford University and the former National Labor Relations Board chairman, says that although players may not be able to apply for the typical state unemployment benefits, they are considered independent contractors and “gig workers,” who are now entitled to pandemic unemployment compensation. 
Either way, Wentworth encourages all MiLB players to apply for unemployment insurance in any state where they were employed. For a list of state’s unemployment policies and procedures, players can visit the Filing an Unemployment Claim in Your State page on the Workplace Fairness website.

About the Author: Kendall Speer is a legal intern at Workplace Fairness. She graduated from Northwestern University with a Bachelor of Science in Social Policy. She then worked for the Jacobson Group, an insurance staffing firm, for two years after graduation. She is now a first-year law student at Boston University of Law. 


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This MLB power couple is fighting to save 200 union jobs

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It all started so innocently.

On Sunday night, Eireann Dolan — the wife of Washington Nationals pitcher Sean Doolittle — was in the car with her husband doing some research on official MLB hats, because her friend was interested in buying one for his son.

But when she searched for New Era — the official manufacturer of baseball caps for Major League Baseball for nearly 60 years — articles immediately popped up about the company closing its unionized shop in Derby, New York, and moving to a non-union shop in Florida. More than 200 workers are scheduled to lose their jobs as a result.

“It’s basically union busting, plain and simple,” Dolan told ThinkProgress in a phone interview on Tuesday afternoon. “The only people wearing [the New Era caps made in Derby] are the players, and these are the players in the union, so we want to make sure they’re wearing caps that are made by people earning a union wage.”

MLB has an exclusive contract with New Era for its caps. Most of the caps New Era makes for the MLB — the ones that fans buy — are made overseas. But the contract stipulates that hats worn by players during games must be made in America.

Dolan — who is in the midst of her thesis project at the Fordham Graduate School of Religion and Religious Education — considers research her forte. So when she came across the New Era story, it only took a few miles of driving before she and Doolitle were so immersed in the subject they had to pull the car to the side of the road. It was the day before Spring Training began for Doolittle and the Nationals in West Palm Beach, Florida, and everyone in the MLB Players Association was busy dealing with free agency drama and responding to commissioner Rob Manfred’s press conference. Despite all of that, within 24 hours, Dolan and Doolittle launched the #NewEraHatsOff campaign on Twitter, with the approval of his union.

Taking a principled stand is nothing new for Dolan and Doolittle. They have helped spearhead LGBTQ initiatives in baseball, hosted Syrian refugees for Thanksgiving dinner, and openly called for better mental health services for veterans. This latest issue hit home because Doolittle grew up in Buffalo, not far from Derby, and even has family friends who work at the facility and will lose their jobs if the deal goes through.

But ultimately, they were drawn to this fight because they feel passionately about protecting the rights of union workers.

“As players who continue to stand together it’s important that we also continue to stand in solidarity with the union labor that has helped make our game what it is today,” Doolittle tweeted. “From the garment workers who make our uniforms to the stadium workers, vendors & security staff at our ballparks to the transportation workers who people rely on to get to games — their work makes our game possible. Baseball could not have grown into a [$10 billion] industry without them.”

Unfortunately, Dolan and Doolittle didn’t become aware of this issue until very late in the game. New Era has already reached a deal on severance with the Communication Workers of America (CWA), the union that represents Derby workers. That deal will be voted on come March 15. Still, there’s a chance.

“There is a glimmer of hope here,” Dolan said. “Companies change their mind. It’s not over until it’s over.

It helps that there’s recent precedent here. In 2017, MLB officials — including Commissioner Rob Manfred — stepped in to help save the jobs of 600 union workers of Majestic in Palmer Township, Pennsylvania, the plant that produces MLB uniforms.

“Our fans and our players have a unique bond with the uniforms that they wear,” Manfred told the Majestic employees at the time. “And, in fact, our uniforms stir emotions among people. Because you cater to that emotion with the quality work you do each and every day, you are, and shall remain, a part of the baseball family.”

Ultimately, they hope the increased attention and awareness to the cause — with some outside public pressure mixed in — will force New Era to change course. At the very least, they want to send a message to other MLB partners that union busting will not be tolerated.

“Those caps [at the Baseball Hall of Fame] in Cooperstown? They were made in Derby. It’s an iconic symbol,” Dolan said.

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on February 20, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Lindsay Gibbs is a sports reporter at ThinkProgress.

But ultimately, they were drawn to this fight because they feel passionately about protecting the rights of union workers.

“As players who continue to stand together it’s important that we also continue to stand in solidarity with the union labor that has helped make our game what it is today,” Doolittle tweeted. “From the garment workers who make our uniforms to the stadium workers, vendors & security staff at our ballparks to the transportation workers who people rely on to get to games — their work makes our game possible. Baseball could not have grown into a [$10 billion] industry without them.”

Unfortunately, Dolan and Doolittle didn’t become aware of this issue until very late in the game. New Era has already reached a deal on severance with the Communication Workers of America (CWA), the union that represents Derby workers. That deal will be voted on come March 15. Still, there’s a chance.

“There is a glimmer of hope here,” Dolan said. “Companies change their mind. It’s not over until it’s over.

It helps that there’s recent precedent here. In 2017, MLB officials — including Commissioner Rob Manfred — stepped in to help save the jobs of 600 union workers of Majestic in Palmer Township, Pennsylvania, the plant that produces MLB uniforms.

“Our fans and our players have a unique bond with the uniforms that they wear,” Manfred told the Majestic employees at the time. “And, in fact, our uniforms stir emotions among people. Because you cater to that emotion with the quality work you do each and every day, you are, and shall remain, a part of the baseball family.”


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