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2-4-6-8, A 401(k) Would Be Great: Calif. Law Makes Cheerleaders Employees

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Next, a story about how cheerleaders are treated by professional sports teams. Not well is the short answer from many cheerleaders. Over the past year, many have sued National Football League teams for wage theft. And now partly in response to those lawsuits, a new California law went into effect this week. It gives cheerleaders the same protections as all other employees. Capital Public Radio's Ben Adler reports.

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MAROON 5: (Singing) Sugar, yes, please.

BEN ADLER, BYLINE: This video on the Oakland Raiders website shows women auditioning for the team's cheerleading squad, the Raiderettes. They're hoping to dance their way into the spotlight of a league that rakes in well over $10 billion a year.

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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: I just made the team.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: I'm so excited.

ADLER: But many pro sports cheerleaders say there's a dark side to their profession. Last year, the Raiders settled a class-action wage theft lawsuit filed by Raiderettes who said the team failed to pay them minimum wage and violated other state labor laws. The Raiders now face other suits as do the league and several other NFL teams.

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CAITLIN YATES: Professional cheerleaders for any team are controlled to an incredible degree by their teams.

ADLER: That's Caitlin Yates, a five-year Raiderette who's suing the team and the NFL, testifying before the California Legislature this past spring.

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YATES: The teams control our outfits, makeup, hair, routines, nails, tanning, et cetera. They even tell us who we can talk to or have relationships with.

ADLER: And that means they should be treated as employees, but not all of them are. Some pro sports teams pay their cheerleaders a flat rate for each game and don't pay them for practices or other public appearances. Democratic Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez says her bill will classify them as employees so they would need to be paid by the hour and have access to benefits like workers' compensation.

LORENA GONZALEZ: I think there is this gut reaction that, like, is this something serious? But when you look at the entire game-day experience, there's only one set of workers who aren't being given the very basic dignity and respect, and those happen to be all women in this very male sport. You know, there's something there.

ADLER: There was no outside opposition to the bill in the California Legislature. And the lawyer who's represented the Raiders in their class-action suit declined to comment. But at a more recent hearing on the bill, Republican State Senator Jeff Stone noted that the Raiders paid more than a million dollars to settle that suit.

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JEFF STONE: So the existing remedies already exist in law. You just have to file them. I just have strong concerns about the state intervening in private contractual relationships. That's something I don't think we should do.

ADLER: The new law takes effect in January. For NPR News, I'm Ben Adler in Sacramento. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.