Every year, Major League Baseball solicits help from volunteers to assist with its wildly popular New York City FanFest, called the “largest interactive baseball theme park in the world.”
Those volunteers aren’t paid, but they are given the opportunity to win a pair of All-Star Game tickets if they work three shifts at any of the festival events. With about 2,000 volunteers in all, the chances of winning tickets are slim.
Now, one of those volunteers has filed a New York wage and hour lawsuit against the league, alleging the company raked in nearly $192 million during the event, while it was simultaneously violating the state’s minimum wage and hour laws.
Adult patrons to the event are charged $35, while children over the age of 2 pay $30 each.
In all, the volunteer says he worked 17 hours for the league last month. Had he been paid the state’s minimum wage for those hours, he would have earned $123.25. The wages could be even higher if he included the time spent sitting through a mandatory orientation and the time it took to undergo a required background check.
Instead, in addition to the chance to win game tickets, he, along with the other volunteers, were provided with a t-shirt, a drawstring backpack, a water bottle, a baseball and free admission for a friend. They weren’t allowed to bring other food and drinks into the event convention center, but they could purchase a bag of chips for $5 or a lemonade for $7.50.
The lawsuit alleges the MLB, which rakes in an estimated $7 billion in profits annually, is soliciting and receiving free labor, in direct violation of state laws governing such matters. State minimum wage law holds that all workers are entitled to receive minimum wage payment for their labor.
But are volunteers entitled to wages?
New York’s minimum wage law holds that an employee is defined as any person employed or permitted to work in any occupation. However, there are a number of exclusions. Those include babysitters, farm workers, certain religious organization workers, summer camp workers – and certain volunteers.
There are two volunteer exemptions to the New York law. The first holds that an organization is only exempt from the labor law if it is organized and operated solely for religious, charitable or educational purposes and if no part of the net earnings benefit a private shareholder or individual. That does not describe MLB.
The second exemption allows for a pass to companies that are putting on a recreational or amusement event wherein no single event lasts longer than eight straight days or more than once a year. Any volunteer for an event like this has to be at least 18 years-old and the business has to notify each volunteer in righting that he or she is volunteering his or her services and waiving his or her right to receive minimum wage. Such a notice has to be signed and dated by the volunteer and kept on file for at least 36 months.
The media reports on this case don’t indicate whether such an agreement was signed. If it wasn’t, the plaintiff – and many others – may well be entitled to compensation.