Cheering Against Wage Theft

A lawsuit claims the Oakland Raiders violated labor law by shortchanging their cheerleaders.

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Oakland Raiders cheerleaders perform during halftime of an NFL football game against the Kansas City Chiefs in Oakland, Calif., Sunday, Dec. 15, 2013.
Working for a pittance.

For hitting the field during home games, entertaining the crowd and providing a distraction from some pretty dismal football, the Oakland Raiders cheerleaders – known as the "Raiderettes" – receive … not a lot of money. That's the allegation made in a lawsuit against the franchise, which claims that the Raiders violated wage and labor law by paying cheerleaders what amounts to less than $5 per hour.

"It's as if the Raiders' owners believe that the laws that protect all workers in California just don't apply to them," said attorney Sharon Vinick, who is overseeing the suit. The complaint, filed on behalf of a cheerleader named Lacy T., alleges that the franchise fails to pay overtime or provide rest and meal breaks, and makes cheerleaders appear at charity and corporate functions without compensation (and never mind the hours of practice for which the cheerleaders are unpaid).

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This is, sadly, an altogether too familiar story in the National Football League where, despite the billions of dollars in profits generated by teams, cheerleaders get continually shortchanged. (The Raiders, even as the NFL's least valuable franchise, still made millions of dollars last year, according to Forbes.)  As Alternet's Lynn Parramore detailed, "An elite veteran cheerleader might get a salary of anywhere from $200-$1,000 per month. Some may make extra money doing paid appearances, but the regular work of a cheerleader generally includes a packed schedule of unpaid appearances and performances throughout the year. You can be a pro cheerleader and make less than $1,000 a year for your work and time." ESPN's Gregg Easterbrook has written, "For an $8 billion enterprise to pay cheerleaders $100 a game, then use their images in national advertising without further pay, ought to embarrass the NFL."

But it's not just NFL teams that should be embarrassed for what amounts to stealing from their own workers. As I explained in a post earlier this month, wage theft in the U.S. is rampant. (An Indian diplomat even allegedly got in on the action.) A 2009 survey found that more than one-quarter of workers had experienced a wage violation in just the previous week. According to the National Employment Law Project, the average low-wage worker loses $2,634 annually to wage violations. Meanwhile, the odds of an employer getting caught in the act are virtually nil.

Yes, the Raiders cheerleaders signed contracts, so they knew what they were getting into. But labor law exists in order to ensure that a minimum standard for pay and working conditions applies to all employees, thus preventing employers from engaging in the proverbial race to the bottom. If the allegations laid out in Lacy T.'s complaint are true, then the Raiders circumvented those standards, at the very least. And that's an issue not just for the NFL, but for all U.S. workers.

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