Why it matters

California has taken the lead again with new legislation, this time becoming the first state to affirmatively declare that cheerleaders for professional sports teams are employees. Governor Jerry Brown signed the measure into law this month, requiring that professional teams in the state pay their cheerleaders at least minimum wage beginning January 1, 2016, making them eligible for overtime, workers' compensation, and paid sick leave, among other benefits. The bill was introduced after multiple lawsuits were filed by past and present cheerleaders, including a complaint in California state court from Lacy T., a former Oakland Raiderette. Similar suits were filed against other professional teams across the country and just like the lawsuits, California's statute has also ignited a trend, with comparable legislation recently introduced in New York.

Detailed discussion

In January 2014, a former Oakland Raiderette launched a movement to recognize cheerleaders for professional sports teams as employees. Lacy T. alleged that the National Football League (NFL) team violated state labor law by paying her a flat rate that amounted to $5 per hour for the time she worked.

Pursuant to a written employment contract, Lacy claimed she was paid a flat fee of $125 per home game or $1,250 per season. The contract set forth several requirements for the Raiderettes, from attending all preseason, regular season, and postseason home games to participating in other events or functions (on average, 10 charitable appearances), and participation in practices, rehearsals, fittings, workouts, photo sessions, and meetings. Cheerleaders were also responsible for additional expenses ranging from false eyelashes to travel costs.

The complaint, which sought payment for minimum wage and overtime violations, unpaid expenses, and meal and rest break violations, generated headlines. It also triggered copycat suits against professional sports teams across the country from New York (suits were filed against the Buffalo Bills and the New York Jets) to Florida (challenging the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' payment methods) to Ohio (asserting the Cincinnati Bengals violated state employment laws).

Lacy T. settled her suit for $1.25 million last September, with about 90 cheerleaders receiving an average of $2,500 to $6,000 per season.

A few months later, Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego) introduced Assembly Bill 202. The measure prohibited all professional sports teams (both major and minor league levels of baseball, basketball, football, ice hockey, and soccer) that play the majority of their games in California from classifying cheerleaders as volunteers or independent contractors.

Instead, cheerleaders—individuals "who perform[] acrobatics, dance, or gymnastics exercises on a recurring basis" utilized by the team for "its exhibitions, events, or games"—are now deemed to be employees under California law and must be paid at least minimum wage. As employees, cheerleaders in the state will now be eligible for other benefits, including overtime, workers' compensation, and paid sick leave. Third parties that contract with teams for cheerleaders are also included in the law's coverage.

Governor Jerry Brown signed the bill into law on July 15 with an effective date of January 1, 2016.

Just as the California lawsuit started a trend, the legislation has already spawned imitation. In May, the Cheerleaders' Fair Pay Act was introduced in the New York legislature. That bill would add a new section to the state's labor law requiring that professional sports teams that "utilize[] the services of cheerleaders during its exhibitions or games, shall provide such cheerleaders with all of the rights, benefits and protections" conferred to employees.

To read Assembly Bill 202, click here.

To read the Cheerleaders' Fair Pay Act, click here.