Striking Out with Unemployment Benefits: Minor League Baseball (MLB) Players Hurdle to Collect Unemployment Insurance Benefits

MLB and its players have begun discussing a way to restart the 2020 season following the COVID-19 delay. During this process, more than 1,000 players have been released from their contracts and have become free agents according to Forbes, while others are facing uncertainty on if they will also be released from their contracts or if their season will ever get underway. Although the MLB Players Association is officially moving forward with a shortened season, this association does not represent minor league baseball players (“MiLB”). Many baseball experts speculate that the minor league season will be cancelled; however, while these discussions are underway many players remain “unemployed.”  During these uncertain times, questions surrounding MiLB players’ ability to collect unemployment have swirled. Unlike MLB players who often have multi-million-dollar contracts, MiLB players typically only make around $14,000 per season, with many of them having to turn to gig jobs to make ends meet. At the beginning of April, MLB announced that it would be paying MiLB players $400 per week, but this is a stipend and does not count as a salary. 

Yahoo Sports, The Washington Post, and many other news sources have written that MiLB players cannot apply for unemployment benefits because they are under contract, meaning they are subject to the Federal Unemployment Tax Act, subsection 3304(a). This Act stipulates that professional athletes cannot apply for unemployment benefits if they are in between seasons as long as they have reasonable certainty that they will be employed in the following season. According to the Department of Labor, an athlete has reasonable assurance of performing services in the next athletic season if there is a contract; if the employer expressed interest to the player in hiring them for the next season; or if the athlete expresses an intent to participate in the sport for the next season. There is no direct language in the contract stipulating that players cannot apply for unemployment benefits.

George Wentworth from the National Employment Law Project argues that MiLB players are eligible because they were not between seasons, instead that the season had started because the players had begun spring training. However, according to Yahoo Sports, it is ambiguous whether spring training is considered part of the official season because although many teams had started spring training, they only get paid in season and would not receive a paycheck until April. If spring training is considered part of the season, then players are able to apply for unemployment benefits because they are technically unemployed during their official season. In this case, players should apply for unemployment benefits through their state. If they are denied, they should appeal, explaining that they are unemployed during their season. The players should also be able to apply for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA). If spring training is not considered part of the season, players may still be able to make the argument that they are eligible for unemployment because they do not have reasonable certainty that they will play in a successive season. This argument is now bolstered by the multitude of teams, a full list of released players can be found on MLB Trade Rumors’ website, that have released their MiLB players in droves. 

William B Gould IV, a law professor emeritus at Stanford University and the former National Labor Relations Board chairman, says that although players may not be able to apply for the typical state unemployment benefits, they are considered independent contractors and “gig workers,” who are now entitled to pandemic unemployment compensation. 
Either way, Wentworth encourages all MiLB players to apply for unemployment insurance in any state where they were employed. For a list of state’s unemployment policies and procedures, players can visit the Filing an Unemployment Claim in Your State page on the Workplace Fairness website.

About the Author: Kendall Speer is a legal intern at Workplace Fairness. She graduated from Northwestern University iwth a Bachelor of Science in Social Policy. She then worked for the Jacobson Group, an insurance staffing firm, for two years after graduation. She is now a first-year law student at Boston University of Law. 

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