Well, that was awkward.
On Thursday, a DFL-controlled committee passed a bill sponsored by the DFL chair of the House Jobs and Economic Development subcommittee and the House Labor Committee to exempt some of the lowest-paid workers in the state from minimum wage law and overtime laws.
These workers earn as little as $1,700 a month for just four months a year, yet their employer requested an exemption from laws that would pay them barely $10 an hour. The committee approved the exemption over the objections of the president of the state’s largest labor organization.
So who are these workers?
They are the 22 athletes who suit up for the St. Paul Saints, the minor league baseball team that plays home games at the heavily public subsidized CHS Field, 1.2 miles away from the state Capitol.
The state exemption would be the third granted by various levels of government after minor league players brought a pair of class-action lawsuits that argued that they should get minimum wage and overtime while playing for teams far from the glamour and salaries of Major League Baseball.
In 2018, Congress passed the Save America’s Pastime Act, which categorized minor league players as apprentices, exempting them from wage and hour laws. More recently, the St. Paul City Council exempted Saints players from the city’s minimum wage ordinance. That leaves the state.
“There are not a lot of things in life, love or politics where Mayor Melvin Carter and President Donald Trump would agree on things, but they agree on this,” said Tom Whaley, executive vice president and part owner of the Saints.
Whaley told the committee that the Saints are part of the American Association, a 12-team independent league that is sometimes called a Second Chance League. The players are usually athletes who were drafted by major league teams but released before making the big team. Playing for the Saints is part of their hope of proving themselves again and perhaps getting resigned by an American or National League team. In the 26-year history of the team, 21 players have been signed to major league contracts and 130 have moved on to affiliated minor league teams.
The league’s team members agree to a salary cap, both to control costs and to maintain competitive balance. The cap for the upcoming season is just $125,000 for 22 players. Teams that exceed the cap can be fined and ultimately expelled from the league.
The St. Paul minimum wage applies to all other workers in the stadium, from concession workers to grounds crew. That means that many of the support staff earn more money than the players.
Opposing the bill to exempt the ball players, House File 2443, was Bill McCarthy, the president of the Minnesota AFL-CIO. “The state of Minnesota should not be in the practice of cutting any worker’s wages and overtime pay,” McCarthy said. “Whether you are tending bar or playing minor league baseball, all working people deserve to earn at least the minimum wage.”
McCarthy said he was also worried about the precedent. “If passed, this could open up the floodgates to other employers requesting exemptions to the minimum wage and overtime laws. How would the Legislature decide which employers deserve an exemption from overtime laws and how would you decide which workers don’t deserve minimum wage or overtime pay?”
He also questioned why the players should be subject to a league salary cap that they had no say in, did not negotiate and can’t reject. He told committee members they had a choice: “If you support strong labor standards in our state, you will oppose this bill.”
All of which put the DFLers on the committee in something of a bind. Most considered themselves strong labor supporters, and the House DFL caucus supports a higher state minimum wage. But the prime sponsor said he has been told the team would be forced out of the league and the stadium — which was built with more than $50 million in state and local tax dollars — if the exemption weren’t given.
“If we play politics with this, it’s a sad day for St. Paul,” said Mahoney, DFL-St. Paul, a retired union pipefitter.
Ultimately the bill passed 12-2 with the two no votes coming from Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, and Rep. Jay Xiong, DFL-St. Paul. But two Republicans who voted yes did so after first passing (Rep. Bob Vogel of Elko New Market) or voting no (Rep. Bob Dettmer of Forest Lake).
Afterward, Hornstein said he voted no out of principle. “If we start setting a precedent for carving things out, anyone can have that excuse to not pay their workers a fair, living wage,” he said. “I do believe that once you open the door, then every industry is going to make up an excuse.”