Jim Juliano - Spring 2015
Are volunteers for promotional events at baseball games actually employees who under federal law must be paid minimum wage?
That question, involving Major League Baseball's FanFest during the 2013 All-Star game week, was played out in court, and the answer was no. But the case does raise the issue under what circumstances special events personnel and others are permitted to be volunteers or whether they must be paid.
Judge John G. Koeltl of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York dismissed the lawsuit of a man who asked to be paid for working as a volunteer at the FanFest activity at Citi Field (home of the New York Mets). After a few hours of training, the plaintiff, John Chen, assisted in the various tasks needed for the FanFest. In return, he received certain free goods and a chance to win a ticket to the All-Star Game, but no pay.
Chen attempted to file a class action alleging minimum wage violations. The court initially dealt with his individual circumstances, and looked at the case from two points of view, federal law and state law—the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), and the New York Labor Law.
The court ruled on a motion to dismiss before any evidence was presented. Essentially, the court decided that the FanFest event was an amusement or recreational establishment and a seasonal event, so the FLSA did not apply.
The FLSA governs the payment of minimum wage and overtime. It is a very technical set of laws and regulations, and this decision demonstrates some of that complexity and its exemptions.
Chen's lawyers attempted to argue that he was an employee of Major League Baseball, not FanFest. As a result, since Major League Baseball is a year-round activity and not seasonal, the FLSA would have applied to the workers at FanFest. In other words, FanFest was simply an activity under the umbrella of Major League Baseball. The court did not accept this argument.
Chen's lawyers also argued that Chen was an employee and not merely a volunteer without any rights of an employee. The court never reached a conclusion on this point since it concluded that the FLSA did not apply.
Although this case will certainly be cited as precedent for a baseball activity being an amusement or recreational establishment, which would exempt it from the FLSA, the circumstances of FanFest were rather limited. This was not a baseball game, but rather an ancillary activity that lasted only a few days. For the exemption to apply, the activity must not operate for more than seven months in any calendar year.
A person who volunteers regularly during the baseball season at baseball games may have a much better position to argue that FLSA should apply and that minimum wage should be paid. Team owners should always look at unpaid workers, be they volunteers or interns, in light of the particular circumstances and how wage and hour laws might or might not apply.