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An MLB Network Freelancer Talks Life In Lockout Limbo

BALTIMORE, MARYLAND - MARCH 26: The closed box office is shown at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on March 26, 2020 in Baltimore, Maryland. The Baltimore Orioles and New York Yankees Opening Day game scheduled for today, along with the entire MLB season, has been postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Rob Carr/Getty Images

It’s easy to identify the two parties who are most affected by the MLB lockout. There are the team owners, who are once again going to great lengths to wrest every possible dollar away from the workers without whom the sport does not exist, and there are the players, the workers, who are fighting for better working conditions and fairer compensation for their labor. Of course, there are also the fans, who the lockout has forced to look at these sad filler blogs on their favorite teams’ websites.

But there’s also another, less visible group of people who, due to their already precarious employment statuses, are more sharply affected by the lockout than anyone else: the army of freelancers who work at MLB Network, airing games, producing studio shows, cutting highlights, building graphics, and logging games. MLB Network, like many other companies, has for years relied heavily on freelance labor to fill critical positions as a cost saving measure. The freelancers, unlike those on staff, aren’t paid a salary and receive only meager benefits, if any at all. Though they often work the same hours doing the same work as staffers, MLB Network freelancers have little opportunity to negotiate for fair wages, raises, vacation days, and humane scheduling. While the lockout means MLB Network staffers are being tasked with handling other duties or just twiddling their thumbs, for MLB Network freelancers, no baseball means no hours and no money. 

I interviewed one MLB Network freelancer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid professional retribution, about the lockout, the way MLB Network treats freelancers, and the complexity of solidarity. 

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity, and to remove any potentially identifying details. 

When we first talked, it was almost December and you were waiting for the December schedule to come out. How is your schedule this month? How many hours have been cut so far because of the lockout?

About 50 percent. Well, a little more actually. We usually would get about 40 hours a week and for me it’s now less than 20. 

What has that meant for you?

It’s obviously difficult to know basically a couple days beforehand that you’re going to get half the work that you were expecting to get. It’s frustrating because if I had known I wasn’t going to be getting booked for half the month, then I could have potentially booked myself out for the other half of the month at other places. I give MLB high priority because typically they give me 40 hours. But recently, it’s slipped to the point where I kind of have to not make that my priority anymore. It’s frustrating and I think a lot of people are in this situation. And I’m hearing rumblings that people are starting to leave at this point, too.

Are MLB Network staffers having their hours cut because of the lockout or is there a different calculation because they’re full-time and salaried?

A lot of them are getting put on the NHL Network, and they’re getting work there. [Ed Note: MLB Network and NHL Network signed a digital-rights partnership in 2015.] And a lot of them are just kind of getting brought in and they’re not really doing much, but they’re still coming in. I don’t think many of the staffers have seen a reduction at least through December, but I don’t know what January is going to look like, because we have no information regarding January. [Ed. Note: MLB Network did not respond to a question regarding if and how staffers have been affected by the lockout.] It’s kind of the same situation that we were in with December. January is less than two weeks away, roughly. It doesn’t sound like the MLBPA and MLB are going to be talking until January, so the idea that a deal is going to be reached before that is kind of just ridiculous, in my opinion. They’re not going to make a deal if they’re not talking.

You told me previously that you picked up a second job. Did you get that job before the lockout or when everything hit the fan?

I picked it up before the lockout. I kind of picked it up in presumption of this happening and honestly just wanting to find a new job.

Are you comfortable saying how long you’ve been freelancing for MLB Network? 

I have freelanced for over half the company’s existence. MLB Network has existed for 11 years. 

Have you given up on getting a staff job?

Oh, yeah, yeah. Unless something drastically changes, I don’t see that changing.

You mentioned that when baseball shut down in March 2020 because of COVID-19, and suddenly you and the other freelancers lost your hours, that it changed your perspective of the job in some ways. You said you realized how little the company cared about you. Can you just walk me through that experience?

Just to take you back, I remember it happened in March 2020 when everything was kind of starting to shut down. And they told us that any shifts we had after two weeks from that point are canceled. They said that we weren’t going to get any work, but to leave ourselves open because they may book us at any point down the road. So I went on unemployment for a little while, and then it was in July when the MLB season started to pick back up. One of the things that was kind of frustrating, too, was there was a big gap between March and July, where baseball games could have been happening. But there was a disagreement between the players and the owners, fighting about money. And because there were no baseball games happening, there was no MLB Network coverage. It kind of comes down to the same situation where you get these players who are fighting over money and everything like that, and I get no work because of it.

There was the situation, too, where MLB Network let us know that we had to cover the company’s side of our healthcare, in addition to the portion we already contributed for healthcare, if we wanted to keep our coverage. So I ended up needing to send in checks for more than $200 a month to just keep my healthcare coverage. It was ridiculous to me that during the pandemic, the place that unemployed me was making me send in healthcare checks. And then because I didn’t work enough hours at the company during 2020, I was denied healthcare coverage for 2021. So now I’m spending some $500 a month on healthcare coverage. The pandemic added another $500 a month in costs for me. I tried to explain it to people in HR and I’m like, Hey, I have to spend an extra $500 a month working at this company. Can I see a little bit of a pay increase more than one and a half percent a year? And they look at me like I’ve got five heads.

Does it make you feel, or is there any collective sense that the freelancers, who really do kind of make everything happen at MLB Network, can come together and organize and exert some leverage in some way, or is it more the fear of rocking the boat too much and then not getting hours and being replaced with other freelancers?

I think there’s enough people that are just sick of this place. And yeah, I think the idea of a collective group of individuals all working together to fight for what they’re looking for could be a very good idea. I know I’m not the only person in this boat. Honestly, I’m a lot luckier than other people. There are people who make half of what I make. I know people who have been working in the company for not much shorter time than I have, and they’re still making $22 an hour. And I tell them, like, you can go out and just fucking get a job at Costco. They’ll pay you $22 an hour. And guess what? They’ll pay your healthcare. And guess what? They give you paid vacation time. And you get members benefits there! You get cheaper MLB tickets at Costco then you do working and for us—how is that a thing? I don’t want to act like I’m asking for too much, but I remember going up to my boss one time and asking if I could get some vacation time, just a week. And they’re like, Well, you get some sick days. And I’m like, well I get sick days because New Jersey’s law mandates that I get sick days. 

Yeah, people get sick and need sick days.

Yeah, also I get sick. And if I call out for a sick day, they’re going to make me go through COVID protocol and I’m gonna have to miss the next two weeks. So it was just kind of the idea of them being like, you have sick days. It’s not what I’m asking for, right? I’m asking for the ability to take time off.  

We talked about this a little bit last time and you sort of touched on it, but I know that part of what feels frustrating for you is that the lockout comes down to millionaires and billionaires arguing over millions and billions of dollars and you’re just trying to do your job so you can get paid. Is that still how you see it? 

Absolutely.

You also said, you know, you think it would be beneficial for you and your co-workers to stand together to negotiate for better pay and conditions and things like this, and that is also what the players are doing, on different level. Is it kind of impossible for you to feel that solidarity with them at this point? How are you thinking about it?

The toughest part is that my sphere of influence isn’t nearly big enough to really take the temperature here. I don’t think a lot of people are talking about it right now, but I think a lot of people are just generally very upset. I think if people heard about the idea of it and realized what some of the benefits could be, they would be on board.

And do you think there would be support from people who are on staff, too? That would probably be a key point to get, you know, the freelancers and staffers to band together?

That would be interesting. I think a lot of staffers definitely are feeling upset with how things are working. I wouldn’t say that the general mood is very happy. They did this thing the other day, it was the funniest shit. They’ve been doing these things every Wednesday where they’re like, Hey, come by the snack mark and we’ll give out free snacks. Which to me is always kind of funny, because it’s like the company saying, Hey we care about you, here’s $1 worth of stuff. But the cookies they gave away the other day looked like that photo I just sent you. 

Sad cookie.

Just such a perfect example. Like, we’re gonna say Thank you for working here with free cookies that look like this instead of, I don’t know, giving us benefits. That cookie is great, but that cookie is not worth $500 a month for me that I’ve lost from my healthcare benefits or the four percent less income that I’m making now because inflation has gone up, or the missed opportunities and hours I’m not getting anymore.

You told me that management thinks the lockout will end and there aren’t going to be any missed games. And you told me that it’s hard for you to trust that because the same people who are reassuring you that there aren’t going to be missed games also said that there wasn’t going to be a lockout. So I’m wondering what, if anything, you’re hearing from management and how you interpret what they’re telling you, or not telling you. 

Yeah, we haven’t heard much. It’s a lot of just kind of like, keep your schedules open. Let me see if I can find the last email from my boss because there was nothing to indicate what’s going to happen. It was just asking for availability. They need to know what I’m doing from Jan. 9 through Feb. 5. However, I don’t know what I’m doing on Jan. 2. That’s really frustrating for me. Feb. 5 is nearly two months from now, okay? And yet I don’t know my schedule two weeks from now.

Is there anything else you want to say about all of this?

I think there’s a lot of frustration among people. There’s been a lot of company turnover in the past just 12 months, I think. I don’t know exactly how many people have come and gone, but I know it’s been a significant amount. And I think that they’re going to experience another wave of that.

Know anything we should know? Contact the reporter at laura@defector.com.