The Buffalo Bills’ cheerleaders, the Jills, have been at the forefront of the fight for fair wages and treatment in their craft for years. Their cause has been the focus of lawsuits and a documentary film. Now, the legislature in New York State is picking up the cause.
Assembly Bill A455, and its State Senate companion S6567, would bring cheerleaders under the umbrella of state labor law, to “provide such cheerleaders with all of the rights, benefits, and protections … for all services provided for the benefit of the team.”
The Assembly bill is still in its early stages of becoming a law, currently under consideration by the Committee on Labor, but having bipartisan support boosts its chances of passage, according to one lawmaker. The bill is only a couple of paragraphs long, setting out definitions of cheerleaders to be included under the law, and it has more than 20 co-sponsors.
“To be able to have fair pay protection, and benefits, is something that, to me, is common sense,” Rep. Michaelle Solages (D-Nassau County), one of the bill’s co-sponsors, told Deadspin. “It’s a grueling job. They start, you know, they have like 10-hour days, work days where they’re there from morning to night; and if you look at their base pay, they’re poorly compensated, and they also have to work a full-time job and have to interview and train and all of that. And so my belief is that they should be afforded protection.”
Solages’ district includes the site of the Islanders’ new arena, set to open this fall. And, rightly, given that the Bills are the only NFL team in the state (the Jets and Giants, of course, play in New Jersey), the Assembly bill makes clear that this isn’t just about football cheer squads. The bill defines cheerleaders as individuals performing “acrobatics, dance, gymnastic exercises, ice skating, or other performances in promotion of a professional sports franchise.” So, NHL ice crews, who of course have faced similar struggles to their NFL cheer brethren, are part of this.
“A hundred percent, I’m all about fair pay for work,” Solages said. “So I would hope, and I would call on the Islanders to provide fair compensation to these women. I mean, they do it for the mascot. They can also do it for the women who are athletic in their own right. They’re professionals. So they should be provided with fair pay, right? And the team is making enough money, they can build a billion-dollar stadium in two years in the middle of a pandemic. So, they should be able to fairly compensate their workers.”
Michael Montesano, a Republican from Nassau County who also is co-sponsoring the bill, agreed that ensuring fair wages is the biggest part of what the assembly is trying to achieve, but noted that getting cheerleaders under labor law would shift the burden of expenses related to their work from the cheerleaders themselves to the professional teams that employ them.
“It’s about helping people get what’s coming to them,” Montesano said. “They’re not getting minimum wage, and there’s expenses that they’re forced to pay and that they’re not getting reimbursed for. … They have to train, stay in shape, there’s qualifications. People look at it as girls dancing around, but these are professional performers, professional dancers; and whatever teams are providing to employees, they’re entitled to the same. Whatever they’re required to pay in connection with their job, they should be reimbursed.”
Both Solages and Montesano believe that New York can provide an example for the rest of the country by making this bill a law. Given how rare it is in 2021 to find something that members of both parties can agree on, it makes all the sense in the world to get it done and do right by workers who for far too long have had to endure not only pay below minimum wage, but frequent harassment.
“Just because they wear skimpy outfits doesn’t mean that they should be disrespected,” Solages said. “There should be more protections. I would think that professional teams would want to create a culture where women feel comfortable to be who they want to be, and it’s unfortunate that we have to legislate that, but if that’s what we have to do, then that’s what we have to do.”
Said Montesano: “This is a significant class of professional people that have been overlooked and taken advantage of. They’re employees. … This is about helping people in the labor arena get what’s coming to them.”