If the MLB draft is a time to look toward the minors with excitement, 2020 has offered the inverse.
The minor league season has not been canceled but now seems quite unlikely. Franchises are stuck in limbo, with little cheer to be found in a draft shrunk to five rounds. As for players already in the minors, the last few weeks have been full of anxiety: Hundreds were released at the end of May, and for those who remain, financial outlooks are uncertain. Most clubs have decided to continue $400 weekly payments at least to the end of June—a handful have committed for the full season—yet many players are still struggling, with no idea what will come next for them or for baseball.
Of course, precarity and low paychecks are not new here, and a handful of groups have sprung up in recent years to help navigate the difficulties of life in the minor leagues. Now, some of those groups have joined together to direct players toward a resource that is new to them—unemployment benefits.
“Most ballplayers aren’t even aware that those benefits are available to them,” says Garrett Broshuis, a lawyer and co-founder of a coalition called Advocates for Minor Leaguers, which is one of the groups trying to inform players about unemployment benefits. “But there's been a real response, with a lot of guys joining in, because there’s a real need out there.”
Typically, minor league players are not eligible for unemployment benefits. (In some states, they’re explicitly prohibited from filing.) MLB sought for years to categorize them as “seasonal apprentices” rather than “employees”; they were made officially exempt from minimum-wage and overtime laws with the Save America’s Pastime Act in 2018. In March, however, federal legislation expanded the group of workers eligible for unemployment to include those such as gig workers and independent contractors. It opened the door for minor leaguers, too.
“There was an attempt by Congress to include individuals who are not characterized as employees,” says William Gould IV, former chairman of the National Labor Relations Board and professor emeritus of labor law at Stanford Law School. “So I believe that they should be able to file and collect.”
The process of requesting unemployment benefits can be confusing for anyone. But for minor leaguers—who may spend spring training in one state, start the season in another, get promoted to a third, be under contract with a major league club based in a fourth, and call home somewhere in a fifth—it can be especially fraught. So last Friday, a website was launched with information for players on how to file, with a series of seminars scheduled to cover details via Zoom. It represented a joint effort from three groups: Broshuis’ Advocates for Minor Leaguers, which pushes for improved conditions in the minors; More Than Baseball, a nonprofit that provides a variety of resources directly to players; and Driveline, the data-driven baseball training facility.
Each group works to assist minor-league players in its own way—plugging holes in a system that has always had cracks where guys can slip through. But this created a chance for them to unite, to combine their resources, and to connect with more players.
“There’s no downside to building a community of people who love baseball, who love minor league baseball, who want these players to succeed on and off the field,” says Jeremy Wolf, the executive director of More Than Baseball.
It started when Driveline CEO Mike Rathwell read up on the CARES Act and wondered if the players who train with him were eligible to apply for benefits, too. With the law’s expanded payout—$600 extra per week through July 31, which is higher than the minimum pay at every level of the minors, as well as more than MLB teams’ current payments of $400—it was money that could make a real difference. But when Rathwell tried to find a definitive answer on players’ eligibility, there was none. So he reached out to Advocates for Minor Leaguers and More Than Baseball, figuring one of them might be able to share some information. As it turned out, both had previously been researching the topic and compiling resources. And Rathwell had ideas about how to break down their results for minor leaguers.
“It’s similar to how we train baseball players—to take complex topics and make them as simple as possible for the athlete to go execute,” says Rathwell.
He built the website to lay out all of their information in one place, step-by-step. The recommendation is that a player files in the state where he played the most last year, and if that does not work, file in the state in which he played the second-most, followed by the state of his major league club, and then by his home state, if necessary. This seems that like the proper approach to Gould, with the caveat that not all states may view players’ claims the same way: “There could be some state systems that would be hostile to a more inclusive interpretation with gig workers, independent contractors, and atypical workers,” he says. “But I think, as a basic proposition, they should be able to file.”
Within a few hours of the site going live last week, 2,000 users had accessed it. Broshuis’s first Zoom session to discuss the process drew roughly 100 players, and a second one earlier this week did close to the same. “There’s fear out there that there’s going to be some sort of reprisal for accessing unemployment benefits,” he says. “There’s misunderstanding about how to do it, whether you really qualify, and overcoming all those barriers is a real hurdle.”
This work may seem more suited to Broshuis’s advocacy group and Wolf’s nonprofit than Rathwell’s gym. But, given the realities of the player development system, it affects them all.
“Generally, our stuff reverts back to—are we doing the best possible job of getting our athletes as good as possible? That’s Driveline’s job,” Rathwell says. “And so, to that end, it’s weird that other jobs, like helping them realize that they qualify for unemployment, butt up against that. But if you’re operating in a place where you have to sleep with eight other guys in a two-bedroom apartment, and do all these other things that are part of the minor league lifestyle, to the extent that a little extra cash in there can be the separator between a good outcome and a bad outcome on the playing field—I think that’s very true.”
It's not hard to see how a few weeks of unemployment benefits could be that separator. It would represent more than most will ever see in the minors, where weekly salaries are just $290 for Class-A and $500 for Triple-A, but it would come at a time when players are faced with unusual costs for the summer. When baseball is active, players have two meals a day covered. They don’t need to worry about cash for a training facility or physical therapy. Now, with the season on hiatus, they face paying for all of that on their own—plus the usual necessities that are already a strain on a meager paycheck.
There's no way to ensure that players will receive this money. (In many states, unemployment systems are backlogged and overwhelmed.) But just by letting them know about their choices, it marks a start.
“Just having information at players’ disposal reduces stress,” Wolf says. “And that allows players to focus more on their job.”