The debate surrounding unpaid interns and low-wage workers, which has primarily been fought in the entertainment media and restaurant industries, has moved to a new market: professional sports. Two Major League Baseball franchises, the San Francisco Giants and the Miami Marlins, are being investigated by the U.S. Department of Labor for possible federal wage violations. According to documents obtained by FairWarning.org, the investigation comes with larger concerns about MLB wage practices, ones that might be “endemic” across the league.
The major concern: clubhouse employees are not making minimum wage and are not getting paid overtime. The San Francisco Giants investigation specifically will also look into “improper use of unpaid interns” based on speculation that they were performing ‘non-intern’ work.
In a statement released on Sunday, the Giants said that they "have an established, highly sought-after internship program where students have the opportunity to gain real world experiences while earning school credit towards their degrees."
"In the past, interns were paid monthly stipends in addition to receiving school credit," they added. "Interns now are paid at or above minimum wage on top of receiving school credit."
This is the San Francisco Giants’ second run in with the Department of Labor this year. This past August, the team paid $544,715 in back wages to 74 low-level employees. The employees, most of which worked in the clubhouse, often worked so many hours that they ended up working for less than minimum wage because they did not receive any overtime.
The San Francisco Giants case is significant because it's the first time the unpaid intern issue has been legally discussed in the professional sports world, and because it was initiated by the U.S. Department of Labor instead of the interns themselves. This is a breakaway from precedent, one set by lawsuits and protests initiated by interns. The most notable of these went after the likes of publisher Condé Nast (whose answer to the lawsuit was to cancel the entire internship program), Saturday Night Live and the film The Black Swan (two interns won their landmark case in the latter). According to the Department of Labor, unpaid internships are only legal when they are designed to be educationally beneficial and do not benefit the employer and/or displace regular workers.
While the details of the case are not known (the government agency would only confirm that the investigation is ongoing), the case could lead to some important gains for unpaid interns and low-wage workers rights, especially in the professional sports industry.