NFL Cheerleaders: A Case Study in Wage Theft

Over the past few years, a coalition of determined activists, labor unions, non-profits and lawyers have done an amazing job of bringing the issue of wage theft to the forefront. The trend is such that the New York Times notified its readers of a “a flood of recent cases – brought in California and across the nation – that accuse employers of violating minimum wage and overtime laws, erasing work hours and wrongfully taking employees’ tips.”

We’ve talked on this blog before about how wage theft can be more insidious, and less apparent, than simply refusing to pay overtime or manipulating hours. Cases like that – where an employer simply tells a worker “Sorry, no overtime for those hours” – are easier to spot and subsequently easier to litigate. But wage theft is not always so egregious, and in recent years a spate of lawsuits have emerged challenging the very idea that workers should not be paid for time spent preparing for work, if not actually working.

That’s what’s happening with the NFL cheerleaders. With the New York Jets announcing a settlement with their cheerleaders this past week (a settlement, it should be noted, celebrated by the team members themselves, in a rare and refreshing display of employee solidarity) this makes four NFL teams that have had to contend with cheerleader lawsuits alleging wage theft, after the Oakland Raiders, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Cincinnati Bengals.

The core of these lawsuits is that the cheerleaders were paid a flat fee per game. How much do you think this fee was? Remember, these girls are out there hustling in the brutal cold, televised across the nation for eager fans and working their hearts out to motivate the crowd. Got a guess?

150 dollars per game. 100 dollars for special events.

From a purely technocratic/legalistic point of view, you could argue that this is a legal wage. NFL games last on average three and a half hours or so. Assuming the girls are mandated to be present for the entire game, that works out to around $43 dollars an hour, not only a legal wage but a pretty good one.

But, of course, this is not the whole story, and this is where we find the real meat of these NFL wage theft lawsuits, as well as the many other wage theft suits that have cropped up across the country. Clearly, the NFL cheerleaders don’t merely show up at the game, dance and cheer, and go home, then never cheerlead again until the next game. These are arguably the top cheerleaders in the nation, and they engage in a vigorous and some might say brutal training regime, along with an intense beauty regime.

Here’s the key: they are required to do this by the NFL teams that employ them. Add in these hours, claimed the Jets cheerleaders, and their hourly pay plummeted to roughly 4 dollars an hours, far below minimum wage federally, or in New Jersey, where the team practices and hosts home games. 

There are actually several other issues at play in these cheerleader wage theft cases. For example, the Jets cheerleaders were direct employees of the team, while other squads are classed as independent contractors and thus deprived of the benefits of being an employee.

There’s also the issue – familiar to many unpaid interns, no doubt – of taking a job for the “prestige” associated, and toughing out the low wages. NFL cheerleaders are the most famous and visible ones in the nation. It is, without a doubt, an honor and high career point to be selected to be among their ranks. But this is absolutely not an excuse for violating wage laws and taking advantage of employees.

We’ll have more on this issue as future cheerleaders lawsuits come to the forefront. In the meantime, if you suspect you may have been a victim of wage theft, learn more at the Serrins Fisher website and contact our office for further inquiry.

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