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Legislature’s inaction turns St. Paul Saints into minimum-wage sinners

St. Paul Saints
Betsy Bissen/St. Paul Saints
Minor league baseball players have already been exempted from the federal minimum wage law and St. Paul’s minimum wage ordinance.

Nuns are exempt from Minnesota’s minimum wage law. So are priests and monks.

But not Saints.

At least not the St. Paul Saints, and a failed attempt to exempt the minor league baseball team’s 22 players from the law during this year’s session of the state Legislature has left them in limbo.

Minor league baseball players have already been exempted from the federal minimum wage law and St. Paul’s minimum wage ordinance. But an attempt to go three-for-three — winning an exemption from the state — failed this session.

A bill to add Saints players to vocations already exempt from the state law — those in religious orders, camp counselors, politicians and some agricultural workers — was moving through the Legislature this year, until it wasn’t. The exemption passed the House Labor Committee with a bipartisan vote but then was not included in that chamber’s omnibus jobs and economic development bill.

And while it was in the Senate’s omnibus bill, it did not make it into the final jobs omnibus bill passed during last month’s one-day special session and subsequently signed by Gov. Tim Walz.

State Rep. Tim Mahoney
State Rep. Tim Mahoney
It was among House DFLers where the bill seemed to falter, despite having the chair of the House Jobs and Economic Development Finance Division, Tim Mahoney of St Paul, as its prime sponsor.

The bill did have public opposition from organized labor, but was it was hardly a labor priority; unions and minimum wage activists put up little opposition when the team’s players were exempted from the St. Paul $15 Now ordinance passed just last year.

Mahoney, a retired union pipefitter, did not respond to requests to comment on the deletion of the exemption from the omnibus bill. He had warned before it passed the Labor Committee, “If we play politics with this, it’s a sad day for St. Paul.”

His Senate counterpart, Sen. Eric Pratt, R-Prior Lake, said he thought the exemption made sense but was told in the House-Senate conference committee that it was a “deal-killer” for the DFL. “I was told that despite the support from the city of St. Paul, the speaker wasn’t interested in having that as part of the final bill,” said Pratt, who is chair of the Senate Jobs and Economic Growth committee. “This was one of the deal-killers. It was discussed (in conference). It was just summarily shut down by the House.

Pratt said Labor and Industries Commissioner Nancy Leppink was “non-supportive” when the bill was heard in his committee. “It boggles me why we couldn’t get this very simple thing that seemed to have bipartisan support done,” Pratt said.

So what happens now?

Through a department spokesperson, Leppink said Monday that she expects the team to comply. “Unless they are otherwise exempt, the St. Paul Saints have an obligation to comply with state minimum wage and hour rates and laws,” she said. “It is the department’s expectation that if the St. Paul Saints employment practices do not currently comply with state law, they will immediately bring their practices into compliance.”

There has never been an investigation of the team nor an enforcement action, Department of Labor and Industries spokesman James Honerman said. Going forward, he said, “Our department has the authority to enter and inspect places of employment with or without a complaint.”

For the Saints, however, meeting the state minimum wage presents a problem. Team officials say it would put them in violation of their league’s salary caps and subject the team to expulsion. Known as a second-chance league, the American Association gives players who either were never drafted by a major league team (or who were drafted and released) an opportunity to play themselves back into affiliated professional baseball.

In the team’s 26-year history, 21 players have signed to major league contracts and 130 have moved to a minor league team affiliated with a major league team, Saints Executive Vice President Tom Whaley told the House Labor Committee in March.

Asked about failure to get the exemption through the Legislature, Whaley said this week: “Right now we’re gonna let the dust settle,” he said. “We haven’t really thought about it much since it happened.”

The session was ending just as the team was beginning its 27th season, leaving the organization with little time to focus on the legislation. “We’re gonna take a look at it in another few weeks and see where we go,” Whaley said.

He noted that it has never been an issue with state regulators, putting the team in an odd position. “There’s no there there right now,” he said. “This is our 27th season and it’s not been an issue for us.”

MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
In the team’s 26-year history, 21 players have signed to major league contracts and 130 have moved to a minor league team affiliated with a major league team, Saints executive vice president Tom Whaley, center, told the House Labor Committee in March.
The American Association has teams in Canada and 10 states and no other team appears to be in violation of state or provincial wage laws — except the Saints. “As far as we know, it’s us,” Whaley said. “It’s a topic of discussion at all of our league meetings and we’ve not heard of anyone else having potential concern about it.”

The salary cap for the 22-players on the team this season is $125,000, Whaley said. Teams that exceed the cap can be fined and ultimately expelled. Whaley said this week that the team pays all other employees at least the applicable minimum wage, currently the state rate of $9.86. The St. Paul wage ordinance does not kick in until 2020.

The players earn as little as $1,700 a month for the four-month season. If they worked a 40-hour week, that monthly pay would barely equal the state minimum wage. But the players do not work 40-hour weeks; the team usually has six games per week and often travels on off days to cities as far away as Winnipeg, Manitoba, Cleburne, Texas, Lincoln, Nebraska and Gary, Indiana.

Said Pratt: “It’s a shame for the Saints because the state helped with CHS Field and they are a tremendous asset for the city of St. Paul. I wish we could have gotten it done.”

Pratt said there are a lot of carve-outs in the minimum wage law for jobs that don’t fit into the more-common definitions of hourly workers. Of the players, said Pratt, “Whether you want to call them interns or entertainers or whatever — they don’t have a job that really fits the standard labor rules.”

That rationale was accepted by, among others, St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter and the City Council. During the March legislative committee meeting, Whaley joked that, “there are not a lot of things in life, love or politics where Mayor Melvin Carter and President Donald Trump would agree on, but they agree on this.”

It hadn’t been much of an issue for the first several decades of the Saints in St. Paul. Even without a statutory exemption, it was assumed that minor league players here and across the nation were not the type of workers covered by wage and hour laws. But a pair of class-action lawsuits argued that minor leaguers should at least get minimum wages from their teams. Before that litigation could get traction, however, professional baseball successfully lobbied Congress last year to pass the Save America’s Pastime Act, which carved out a new exemption under federal law.

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Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Marc Post on 06/19/2019 - 10:06 am.

    Maybe the league needs to have another look at a salary cap that doesn’t allow players to make $15/hr. Saint’s tickets are no longer cheap. The money is there. Pay them.

  2. Submitted by Dan Lind on 06/19/2019 - 10:42 am.

    This is silly. How exactly does one determine when a minor league baseball player is “on the clock” and should be paid under the state’s minimum wage law?

    Take traveling for instance. Are they paid for time spent on the bus/plane? What about when they wake up at the hotel and eat that free continental breakfast before they head to the ballpark – is this paid time or personal time?

    Our legislature finds themselves digging in their heals and opposing some of the most ludicrous things…

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 06/20/2019 - 10:41 am.

      Fortunately, this is not the first time anyone has asked what is and isn’t being “on the clock.” There are state and federal statutes and rules and decades worth of caselaw that address the issue. You are implying that there is uncertainty where there is none. No one who understands the law is disputing the fact that based on the hours deemed “on the clock” that these players are being paid less than the minimum wage. That is why the team was seeking an exemption.

      As far as the legislature goes, I certainly hope there are bigger priorities than helping wealthy beneficiaries of tens of millions of dollars in public subsidies pay their employees less.

  3. Submitted by Jackson Cage on 06/19/2019 - 10:57 am.

    Amazing. An entire article devoid of any reason why the Saints should be exempted from the law. As if the fact that every employer/team pays their roster poorly is an acceptable excuse.

  4. Submitted by Pat Terry on 06/19/2019 - 11:15 am.

    Fun is good! Getting $50 million in public money for the construction of a new stadium is also good! But apparently paying your employees minimum wage is bad!

  5. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 06/22/2019 - 10:59 am.

    I don’t see any difference between between an industry or “league” creating salary caps, and legalized racketeering. The only rational for these salary caps is to maximize the owner’s share, and there’s no “cap” on the owners share… that’s not a coincidence. No matter how much the owners pull in… they just can’t pay the guys who actually generate the revenue anymore than they’re already paying them… to bad, those are the rules. And we’re talking living wages here, none of these players is going to be millionaires in any event.

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