When Manouchcar Pierre-Val joined the Tampa Bay Buccaneers cheerleading squad in the spring of 2012, she was working full time as a registered nurse. Shaking pom-poms on Sundays for thousands of fans at National Football League games was a way to “let go and have a great time,” she says on a video posted to the Buccaneers website, which splices images of Pierre-Val caring for diabetic patients and posing in a bikini for a beach photo shoot.
Now the former Bucs dancer is suing the team, alleging that she was paid less than the minimum wage. In a suit filed in U.S. District Court in Florida this week, Pierre-Val says that the team paid $100 for every game she worked. She had to spend up to 15 hours a week at unpaid mandatory practices and dozens of hours at corporate and charity events for which she received little or no pay, according to the complaint. In all, Pierre-Val was paid less than $2 an hour, her lawyer told the Tampa Bay Times.
At the heart of the suit is Pierre-Val’s claim that she was paid as an independent contractor—a freelancer—but treated as an employee entitled to be paid the minimum hourly wage. That claim puts her in good company around the NFL and the workforce at large. Onetime members of at least four other NFL cheerleading squads—the Oakland Raiderettes, the Cincinnati Ben-Gals, the Buffalo Jills, and the New York Jets Flight Crew—have also sued their teams under the federal and state labor laws.
Buccaneers spokesman Nelson Luis declined to comment on the pending litigation. Earlier this month, the team released a statement declaring that cheerleaders “are compensated for all hours worked, on an hourly basis.”
Labor lawsuits often elicit yawns when an NFL team isn’t involved, though U.S. congressmen, strip club owners, and Fortune 500 companies accused of underpaying workers have also made news. More and more American workers are facing the kind of issues the cheerleaders raise. The U.S. had about 18 million independent workers last year, according to an estimate by MBO Partners, which sells services to contractors. State and federal regulators have been cracking down on businesses that misclassify workers.
The line between employee and independent contractor is often murky. The Department of Labor has a list of six criteria to consider: How permanent is the worker? Who pays for tools and equipment? How important is the worker to the company’s business? That last item is why Pierre-Val’s lawsuit quotes the Buccaneers’ website saying the cheerleaders are “an integral part of the game day experience.”
Misclassification suits usually hinge on who controls the work relationship, says Russell Berger, a Baltimore labor lawyer at Offit Kurman. The extent to which the employer sets work hours or determines how the job is to be performed is often the determining factor.
The cheerleaders’ lawsuits aim to show how much control the teams exercised by, for example, requiring unpaid appearances at charity events. The lawsuit against the Buffalo Bills also included the stomach-turning allegation that worker rules dictated “how much bread to eat at a formal dinner, how to properly eat soup, how much to tip restaurant waiters, wedding etiquette, how to properly wash ‘intimate areas,’ and how often to change tampons.”
The Bills are seeking to dismiss the suit, arguing that the team’s cheerleaders are employed through a third-party vendor. In a statement posted online, the team said that allegations “that give the impression that our organization employs cheerleaders” are inaccurate. That may not matter, Berger says. If the team had power to hire or fire, or to control work schedules or employment conditions, it may be considered an employer under the Fair Labor Standards Act.