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MLB Sued Over Use Of Unpaid Volunteers At FanFest Events

Law360.com—Jonathan Randles

Major League Baseball has violated state and federal employment laws by staffing its lucrative All-Star FanFest events with unpaid volunteers, according to a class action lawsuit filed Wednesday in New York.

The complaint targets MLB's annual FanFest event, described by the league as an “interactive baseball theme park,” which has become a fixture of the All-Star Game weekend. The five-day 2013 All-Star Weekend event in New York City generated approximately $191.5 million for the local economy and was sponsored by at least 15 major U.S. corporations, according to the complaint.

The most recent FanFest, as in years past, was staffed with volunteers who received MLB souvenirs as opposed to wages, the lawsuit said. Unlike a nonprofit or charity organization, for-profit ventures such as MLB are required to pay those who work at these events minimum wages, said Outten & Golden LLP's Justin M. Swartz who is representing FanFest volunteers.

A ticket to this year's FanFest event, held between July 12 and July 16, cost $35 for an adult and $30 for a child above age 2, the complaint said. Concessions were also relatively steep, with a small bag of potato chips running $5 and a cup of lemonade costing $7.50, the lawsuit said.

“MLB could have easily afforded to pay its FanFest workers," the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit seeks to force MLB into changing its staffing policies and to recover wages for all volunteers who worked at FanFest and related events since August 5, 2007. Swartz said all of the major U.S. sports leagues utilize similar staffing practices at their All-Star events.

“We hope that tagging MLB with this lawsuit will clean up its practices and lead other sports leagues to make the same call,” Swartz said in a statement. “It would be a win if MLB followed the ground rules that apply to other businesses. When companies save money by accepting unpaid work, wages everywhere slide.”

According to the complaint, volunteers at the 2013 FanFest were required to pass a background check, attend an information session at Citi Field and work multiple shifts for which they were paid no wages. MLB had similar policies at previous FanFest events, the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of John Chen of Rego Park, N.Y., and alleges MLB failed to pay workers the minimum wage required under the Fair Labor Standards Act and the New York Labor Law. The complaint also alleges MLB violated labor laws for using unpaid volunteers at the 2012 All-Star FanFest in Kansas City, the 2011 All-Star FanFest in Phoenix and the 2008 All-Star FanFest in New York.

“I very much enjoyed working at FanFest, but the minimum wage laws are important,” Chen said in a statement. “People who cannot afford to work for free should be able to have the same experience I had.”

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The plaintiffs are represented by Justin M. Swartz, Juno Turner and Michael Litrownik of Outten & Golden LLP.

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The case is John Chen, et al. v. Major League Baseball, et al., case number 13-cv-5494, in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.