Federal investigation of cheerleaders’ claims a boost for working women

Department of Labor looking into Raiderettes’ lawsuit, as well as other ‘high risk’ industries which employ many women

Cheerleaders for the Oakland Raiders are suing the team, and the Department of Labor has begun an investigation over claims that the team is violating wage and other workplace laws.
Brian Bahr/Getty Images

“Why do I hire young girls?” the businesswoman asked.

“Because they cost practically nothing,” the ad executive replied.

These characters were talking about the 1960s-era retail industry in an episode of “Mad Men,” but a recent labor lawsuit — and a related federal investigation — suggests the sentiment may be relevant half a century later.

In January the Oakland Raiders cheerleaders, known as the Raiderettes, filed suit in California Superior Court alleging illegal labor practices by the professional football team. The complaint alleges that the Raiders failed to pay minimum wage and overtime and failed to pay the women every two weeks, as required by California law.

The suit is the first of its kind the National Football League has seen, and it has gotten the attention of the Department of Labor — now headed by President Barack Obama’s 2013 appointee Tom Perez. The DOL has opened an investigation into the Raiderettes’ allegations, just as it has for restaurants, retail and other low-wage industries. According to some attorneys and labor law experts, the DOL’s commitment to enforcement plays a particularly important role in ensuring that women are protected in the workplace, given that many low-wage sectors are dominated by women.

In January the DOL announced plans to investigate the Raiderettes’ claims. While the agency refused to comment on this specific investigation because it is ongoing, a spokeswoman told Al Jazeera that the department’s “Wage and Hour Division’s enforcement initiatives typically involve industries that employ large numbers of low-wage workers or other workers who are unlikely to complain about wage violations.”

The impact these investigations have on women workers is clear.

“The Department’s Wage and Hour Division has stepped up its enforcement efforts in high-risk industries, such as health care, restaurants and garment, that employ large populations of vulnerable workers — many of whom are women — and where the division has found significant and widespread labor violations,” she said.

Since 2009 the division has recovered nearly $335 million in back wages for 478,580 workers in 55,880 cases nationwide in low-wage industries, “including industries in which women are likely to work,” the spokeswoman said.

Speaking out

Cheerleading is a realm made up almost exclusively of women. According to their complaint, the Raiderettes attend practices two or three times per week from April to August, yet, according to their contract, they are not paid for any practices. Contractually they earn $125 per game, but they are not paid until the season is over, the suit alleges.

The plaintiffs also allege that the contract they signed with the Raiders illegally requires them to purchase equipment for which they are not reimbursed (including yoga mats, a white sports bra, false eyelashes and tights), requires specific hairstyles for which they must pay out of pocket, fails to reimburse them for travel to out-of-town events such as photo shoots, prohibits the women from discussing their fees, requires work in excess of eight hours without providing meal breaks, and institutes a host of fines for minor infractions such as failing to submit a personal bio on time.

The DOL spokeswoman said the agency does not have a specific enforcement initiative related to professional sports teams. However, the department has recently been involved in other wage and hour suits in the sports industry. Last year, it helped reach a settlement in a suit against the San Francisco Giants baseball team after a DOL investigation concluded that the Giants violated the Fair Labor Standards Act’s minimum wage, overtime and record-keeping regulations as they apply to the team’s clubhouse and front office workers.

The department is also reportedly investigating the Giants’ and Miami Marlins’ practices around unpaid interns.

Haeyoung Yoon, deputy program director with the National Employment Law Project (NELP), said the DOL’s decision to investigate independently could help identify mistreatment among workers who, unlike Raiderettes plaintiffs Lacy T. and Sarah G., would not file suit on their own.

“Enforcement by public agencies is hugely important in the world of compliance,” Yoon said. “Even when there is private litigation, that doesn’t foreclose government agencies from doing a ‘wall to wall’ inspection” that can examine practices related to more workers.

Sharon Vinick, attorney for Lacy T. and Sarah G. (the cheerleaders’ last names are being withheld to preserve their privacy), said the Raiders are not the only NFL team engaging in these practices.

“We believe this type of treatment of cheerleaders is going on throughout the NFL,” Vinick said. “But it is very hard to step forward — there tends to be a code of silence. Some dancers believe it is a ‘violation of the sisterhood’ to speak out.”

‘I felt tricked’

One of the Raiderettes plaintiffs, Lacy T., began dancing for the football team last April. She first became concerned when she noticed differences between her contract with the Raiders and her contract with her prior employer. Previously, as a dancer for the Golden State Warriors basketball team, Lacy said, she was paid more than minimum wage and was paid every two weeks for all the work she did during each pay period.

“I sat down with my husband and said something didn’t feel quite right about my experience with the Raiders,” she told Al Jazeera. Ultimately, she decided to file suit.

Sarah G. worked as a Raiderette for four years, but she did not notice anything unusual about her contract until Lacy spoke out.

“After I learned what Lacy was saying, my boyfriend and I researched the state labor laws and realized our contract is full of illegal provisions,” Sarah said. “I felt tricked.”

The Raiders did not respond to Al Jazeera’s repeated requests for comment.

The Raiderettes’ suit, and the DOL’s decision to investigate, suggests that lack of compliance with labor codes today may not exist just in restaurant, retail or domestic work or other sectors commonly associated with low wages. The provisions of the Raiderettes’ contract, Lacy suggested, are out of line with their role in supporting a multimillion-dollar franchise.

“We are employees, we are professional dancers and athletes,” Lacy said. “And we are a walking, talking marketing machine.”

Some feminist scholars — including Gloria Steinem in her 1994 essay “Revaluing Economics” — have argued that the economic value of a given job is correlated with whether the laborer is a woman or a man. The cheerleaders’ attorneys drew a direct distinction between the cheerleaders’ salaries and those of professional team mascots, recently telling Salon the mascots, who are often men, are paid $30,000 to $65,000.

According to Yoon — who focuses on the intersection of low-wage work and women’s economic status in her work at NELP — pay disparity and the cheerleaders’ allegations are consistent with trends her organization has observed.

“Women tend to experience higher rates of wage and hour violations than men,” Yoon said. “In view of women’s overall wages being lower than men’s, that’s astounding.”

Neither Sarah G. nor Lacy T. anticipates working as a Raiderette again in 2014 — but the proverbial ball is in the team’s court.

“I don’t think I will be welcome at the Raiders anymore,” Lacy said. “But I hope the Raiders will say, ‘We know you’re right. We’ll make changes, and we’d love to have you back.’”

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