California backs financial justice for pro cheerleaders

San Diego Chargers cheerleaders (Reuters/Mike Blake)
Groundbreaking legislation in California will for the first time ensure that cheerleaders are not cheated out of pay – and not just for game time, but also for countless hours spent on rehearsals and appearances. The new law came after numerous lawsuits.

Many in the industry point to a loophole that allows employers to only pay cheerleaders for the final product of their labor, seeing as they’re not officially part of the team. The bill that passed the California State Senate on Monday with a bipartisan 26-8 vote will ensure that does not happen again. It is currently awaiting signature by Governor Jerry Brown.

There are a whole host of appearances and engagements cheerleaders have to be involved in outside of game time, including rehearsals, promotional materials and others, according to the bill’s proponents. Moreover, cheerleaders are often forced to spend thousands of dollars on related costs – including travel, personal appearances and unpaid overtime, which will all fall under the new bill and which have been frequent subjects of lawsuits.

The bill’s author, Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzales (D-San Diego) said: "Everyone who works hard to provide a great game-day experience deserves the same basic level of dignity and respect on the job, starting with simply being paid for their work.”

Her bill seeks to bring the state “one step closer to respecting these workers by ensuring that the same basic workplace standards apply to everyone, whether you are the beer guy or a pro cheerleader.”

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California is following in New York’s steps with the passing of the legislation. The catalyst was a spate of NFL lawsuits detailing unpaid wages for numerous hours spent toiling outside of game time.

The problem, however, is that the new bill may not affect the existing law at all, according to some. This is because existing legislation already sees cheerleaders as minimum-wage workers.

RT spoke to Valerie Town, a former Baltimore Ravens cheerleader while she was in college, from 2003 to 2007. She says she used to earn $75 per game, as well as tickets. Some appearances were paid, but not all. Practices went unpaid, and they took place twice a week, lasting up to two hours each.

Town, however, admits that, despite her never having planned to make cheerleading her life’s ultimate ambition, it did “[open] a lot of doors” for her. She adds that she “never felt exploited by the team. I wouldn’t have stuck with it, even if I was paid more.”

She said that cheerleading was “a great way to put myself through college. And it was an awesome, awesome opportunity to do that.

Reuters / Larry Downing

“We got good [medical] care through the team” and “the Ravens made sure girls were safe and okay. If anything happened, they were there.”

However, it’s difficult to say if Town’s story is the rule, or the exception.

The Oakland Raiders pay their cheerleaders $125 per game, which amounts to $1,250 per season. But with the rest of the hours factored in, that figure comes down to below $5 per hour – significantly less than minimum wage – according to the team cheerleaders’ attorney Sharon Vinick, who spoke to the Associated Press.

Vinick also brushed off arguments that the cheerleaders benefit from public appearances outside of games as somehow beneficial and providing exposure for potentially entering other fields, such as modeling. At the very least, she says, because they shouldn’t have to.

"If you are a young starting quarterback, you get lot of notoriety for that, but you also get paid for that work," she says. "The fact that the women might get some opportunities doesn't justify not paying them."

The problem is, according to lawyers, that girls are being told it’s a privilege to do what they love and to be exposed like that.

Numerous other lawsuits, however, prove that experiences can get much worse than even the Raiders example; one lawsuit by six cheerleaders with the Buffalo Bills alleged they weren’t paid even for game days – let alone uniforms and makeup.

The AP asked the NFL for comment on the new bill, which went unanswered.

If the cheerleaders were employed by the league, their rights would have been secured by the fact that the league has to follow state and federal laws. But the NFL classes cheerleaders as independent contractors, placing them at a legal disadvantage.
Experts say that the situation is similar to being an independent contractor only on paper.