NFL cheerleaders battle for minimum wage, California makes it law, N.Y. next?

The National Football League season has kicked off and, according to Forbes Magazine, the average player will pocket more than $2 million US this year. At the same time, many NFL cheerleaders are still battling for minimum wage.

Now, U.S. politicians have come on side and their plays are proving to be a game changer.

In January, a state law will come into effect in California requiring professional sports teams to grant their cheerleaders basic employee rights such as minimum wage pay and sick leave.

"Even with the stronger [labour] laws here, we had to pass a law. Unbelievable, right?" California Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, who introduced the bill, told CBC News.

Poverty pay in the rich NFL?

The legislation follows recent lawsuits launched against five NFL teams by current and former cheerleaders who allege abusive working conditions and below minimum-wage pay — as little as $2.85 per hour

NFL team mascots reportedly make between $23,000 and $65,000 a year.

"It's demeaning, it's degrading," Gonzalez said of the alleged wage violations.

Gonzalez, a former college cheerleader herself, says she was inspired to introduce the bill after the lawsuits did not inspire widespread change in the NFL. And she was shocked when San Diego Chargers squad members informed her they were paid $75 per game and nothing for all their other duties, including rehearsing and training.

Gonzalez said the women told her "we're not supposed to talk about it."

"I said, 'Forget this, they're too afraid to even talk about it, too afraid to even assert their rights.'"

That's when she decided "this could be handled very easily in California state law."

New York state is also working to enact a Cheerleaders' Fair Pay Act that mirrors California's legislation.

NFL punts it to the teams

Gonzalez contends that the battle shouldn't have to be fought region by region, so she's joined 18 politicians from eight states who have sent a terse letter to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. It asks the the league to "correct this economic injustice" by treating all its cheerleaders as employees who, by law, are guaranteed minimum wage.

The NFL claims it's rooting for the cheerleaders.

"We support fair employment practices. The clubs that have cheerleaders are expected to comply with federal and state wage laws," NFL spokesperson Brian McCarthy said in an email to CBC News.

However, he added, "this is a team issue."

Gonzalez believes the NFL's position is a cop-out. She says it has the power to force teams to pay cheerleaders a fair wage but won't take action.

"The approach the NFL is taking — 'we think these teams should abide by laws and we know they're not' — is disgraceful," she said.

Some of the lawsuits have already led to changes. The New York Jets, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Oakland Raiders and Cincinnati Bengals recently settled their cases, doling out cash settlements to cheerleaders who claimed they had been underpaid.

The Buccaneers, Raiders and Jets are currently paying their cheering squad at least minimum wage. The Bengals told CBC News that it complies with current wage laws but did not explain further.

Buffalo Jills blues

The Buffalo Bills' cheering squad, the Buffalo Jills, is still waiting on the sidelines.

Five former Jills filed a lawsuit last year, alleging they worked hundreds of hours for free and were subjected to degrading treatment, such as a jiggle test to check their weight, and sexual harassment at community events.

The Buffalo Bills have declined to comment while the case is before the courts. The Jills have not performed at games since last season.

"We hope that we will see the Jills back," said former Buffalo Bills cheerleader, Elizabeth Morgan who lives in London, Ont.

Morgan won't discuss how she was compensated while a Jill from 2004 to 2006. She says she was hired as an "independent contractor" and was fully aware of the pay. She has no complaints about her past gig that she claims was full of extra, invaluable perks.

However, she supports the move to a fair wage for cheerleaders. "Yes, it's appropriate and it's a great step forward."

Fair pay for cheering in the CFL?

Morgan also believes the issue will spark discussion about fair pay in the Canadian Football League where cheerleading is largely a volunteer job.

She cheered for both the Toronto Argonauts and then the Hamilton Tiger Cats between 1999 and 2004. She was paid a small honorarium per game and says it was a rewarding experience.

Yet Morgan, who still does some choreography for CFL cheerleaders, feels it's time for the league to explore the prospect of minimum wage.

"I think there will be a lot of communication about it because of what's happened in the NFL and what's occurring now and that's a positive thing," she said.

Gonzalez plans to continue her fight, state by state if she has to: "We're just going to continue to bang the drum."

The politician also plans to tackle the issue in both the National Basketball League and the National Hockey League, which also have cheerleaders.

"The other really bad actor from what I understand is the NHL, so we're working on that," she said.

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