Legislators representing eight states sent a letter to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell on Wednesday urging him to implement a league-wide standard of classifying cheerleaders as employees – entitling them to minimum wage and other employee protections.
Currently, cheerleaders for NFL teams are classified as "independent contractors," which allows teams to avoid paying minimum wage and impose a constant threat of being cut from the squad at any time. Few former and current NFL cheerleaders have spoken out about issue, and those who have brought lawsuits against their employers have spoken of being ostracized.
The letter from the lawmakers – representing California, New York, Texas, New Jersey, Illinois, Maryland, Ohio, and Pennsylvania – addressed directly to Goodell, reads in part:
Over the past year, the National Football League has been making headlines due to a series of wage theft lawsuits that have been filed by professional cheerleaders against their respective teams. To date, cheerleaders for the Oakland Raiders, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, New York Jets, Buffalo Bills, the Cincinnati Bengals have filed lawsuits alleging minimum wage violations. These class action complaints outline a system of abuses against cheerleaders including but not limited to failure to pay in a timely manner, reimburse for mandatory expenses, adhere to the notice and record keeping requirements under state labor laws, and penalties for minor infractions with unlawful deductions from earnings.
As you may know, legislation has been signed into law in California and introduced in New York that addresses these widespread wage theft cases. We write to you as this rampant misclassification of professional cheerleaders has come to the attention of legislators across the country where the issue of "employee" vs. "independent contractor" has been brought into question in various workforce sectors.
In July of this year, a bill introduced by California State Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez to clarify state labor law – classifying cheerleaders for professional teams as employees – was signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown. California is believed to be the first state to make this clarification, and Assemblywoman Gonzalez is one of nineteen signatures on the letter. New York Assemblywoman Nily Rozic and New York State Senator Diane Savino, both of whom introduced bills similar to Gonzalez's in New York, signed the letter as well.
Gonzalez previously told BuzzFeed News that securing employment protections for all cheerleaders for professional sports teams could theoretically be accomplished by state-by-state legislation, but that the process would be unnecessarily tedious.
"The NFL needs to wake up and say they've been going about this the wrong way," Gonzalez said in July. "They could fix this. The ball is in their court."
The letter concludes with a reference to increased focus on the NFL's handling of players accused of domestic and sexual assault:
"Over the past years, the NFL has had to address cases of sexual assault and domestic violence. Each of them resulting in negative headlines suggesting the League's lack of support for women. With women currently making up 45% of the League's fan base, it is clear that there is opportunity now to take a stance on issues that hinder economic and social progress in a nation that has come far in the fight for fair wages and equal rights."
In an email to BuzzFeed News, NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy avoided a response to the letter's request: "We support fair employment practices. The clubs that have cheerleaders are expected to comply with federal and state wage laws." McCarthy did not respond to a request to clarify further.
Currently, the wage laws referenced by the NFL are vague, allowing NFL teams to classify cheerleaders as independent contractors, rather than employees. If the NFL does not agree to change policy league-wide, legislators can introduce bills similar to the one passed into law by California in July to clarify and re-classify cheerleaders as employees of their respective clubs.
In response to the NFL statement on the matter, Assemblywoman Gonzalez told BuzzFeed News in an email that the NFL "clearly doesn't understand the term 'fair employment practices' and there have been numerous examples where its franchises have not lived up to their supposed expectation that wage laws are followed. This disregard for fair pay laws is what led to lawsuits by current and former cheerleaders and why lawmakers like myself have authored legislation to crack down on teams that are ripping off their female employees."