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With players safely on base in “intern” wage suits, plaintiffs’ firm sets sights on unpaid MLB “volunteers”

By Lisa Milam-Perez, J.D.

Major League Baseball (MLB) violated federal and New York wage law by accepting work performed by volunteers and not paying them for their work during the All-Star FanFest and All-Star Summer, according to a putative class action suit filed on Wednesday, August 7, by the plaintiffs’ firm Outten & Golden LLP. The most recent lawsuit on behalf of short-stint “volunteers” suggests a second wave of litigation on the unpaid labor front, expanding beyond structured internship programs.

The complaint, brought in a federal district court in New York, alleges that MLB unlawfully employed approximately 2,000 volunteers to perform the vast majority of the work at the for-profit All-Star Weekend events, netting millions in income for MLB “and depriving low-income New Yorkers of opportunities for paid work.” Contending the practice violates the minimum wage provisions of the FLSA and New York Labor Law, Outten & Golden is seeking unpaid wages, liquidated damages, interest, and attorneys’ fees for volunteers who worked for MLB between August 7, 2007, and the date of a final judgment. The suit also alleges MLB violated state labor laws at the 2012 All-Star FanFest in Kansas City, the 2011 All-Star FanFest in Phoenix, and the 2008 All-Star FanFest in New York.

MLB has annual revenues of about $7 billion, and the five-day 2013 All-Star Weekend was sponsored by at least 15 major U.S. corporations, the complaint asserts. According to MLB, this year’s All-Star game and related events brought approximately $191.5 million into the New York City economy. MLB billed FanFest sponsorships as the “ideal venue to leverage the most eagerly awaited fan experience of the summer.”

The lawsuit alleges that unpaid volunteers were required to attend mandatory orientations and information sessions, work multiple shifts, and submit to background checks, but were paid no wages. The plaintiffs hope to stop the league from soliciting and accepting work from unpaid volunteers and give individuals “who cannot afford to work for free” an opportunity to work at FanFest and other events.

“Major League Baseball should be forced to pay minimum wages to the workers who assist in making FanFest a hit every year,” said Outten & Golden’s Justin M. Swartz, who represents the plaintiffs. “It should not get a free pass like a nonprofit organization or a charity.”

“We hope that tagging MLB with this lawsuit will clean up its practices and lead other sports leagues to make the same call,” Swartz added. “It would be a win if MLB followed the ground rules that apply to other businesses. When companies save money by accepting unpaid work, wages everywhere slide.”

This case is Chen v Major League Baseball, S.D. N.Y., 13 Civ. 5494.