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Former Buffalo Jills Cheerleader Fights Wage Theft

May 9, 2014

You may have heard of the 2011 NFL lockout, when the owners of the 32 National Footbal League teams locked out the NFL players from team facilities and shut down league operations from March through July 2011 because they could not come to terms on a new collective bargaining agreement with their union, the NFL Player’s Association.  Few, however, know the story of the 1995 and 2014 management lockouts of the Buffalo Bills cheerleading squad known as the Buffalo Jills.

Jills Cheerleader

Since, 1967, the Buffalo Jills have been the official cheerleading squad for the Buffalo Bills NFL football team.  

For decades, the Jills were subject to illegal pay practices and unfair working conditions, including not being paid anything for long hours spent working at Buffalo Bills home games, practices and numerous personal appearances.  They also were required to sell posters of the Jills squad and provide modeling services for those posters without compensation. 

In the mid-1990’s, the Jills fought back and worked collectively to improve their working conditions.  In 1995, the National Labor Relations Board determined that the Jills cheerleaders were employees not independent contractors and affirmed their right to vote to form a union.  The Decision and Direction of Election reads: 

The facts herein clearly establish that the cheerleaders are employees rather than independent contractors.  The Employer controls their rehearsal schedules, their costumes, their routines, the times and places of performances and requires each to maintain a specific weight.  The cheerleaders are not allowed to book their own performances and have no ability to employ or arrange for replacements.  The Employer places strict limits on their discretionary time, prohibiting fraternization with members of the Buffalo Bills team or staff, and requiring all their actions as an individual to reflect the Jills’ organization. All significant business decisions are made by the Employer which alone decides if and when appearances are made as well as how much, if anything will be paid for the appearance.

In February 1995, the members of the Jills voted overwhelmingly (29-2) in favor of making the National Football League Cheerleaders Association the first and only NFL cheerleaders labor union.  For the first time in Jills’ history, the unionized Jills received cash compensation for working the Buffalo Bills games and aspired to encourage other NFL cheerleaders to join their union.   

The Jills employer responded bitterly to the formation of the union, stating, “to me, jumping around on the sidelines isn’t really work. It isn’t labor at all” and “It’s not like they work in the coal mines.  They’ve never been instructed to stand under 3,000-degree iron ore in a steel mill.”

The Jills’ historic success did not last long.  WIithin months, the Jills filed a grievance with the National Labor Relations Board after their employer cancelled the Jills’ public appearances and failed to notify them of upcoming tryouts in an effort to keep these uppity women off the squad and thwart their efforts to receive a fair day’s pay for a fair days work.  After this management lockout, their employer then folded the corporation that managed the Jills and they struggled to find a new sponsor.  The Jills found a temporary sponsor after merging with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, also known as the IBEW.

In 1996, the Jills were forced to dissolve the union as a condition of obtaining a new sponsor.  Many of the improvements in the working and pay conditions that the unionized Jills had worked so hard to achieve were rolled back by management in the ensuing years.  In 1996, one member of the Jills was Stephanie Mateczun, who is now the Jills’ Cheerleading Co-ordinator and President and CEO of the corporation that manages the Jills.   

On April 22, 2014, Caitlin Ferrari, through her attorneys Christopher Marlborough of the Marlborough Law Firm, P.C. and Shane Rowley of Levi & Korsinsky, LLP filed a class action lawsuit challenging the pay practices of her employers.  According to the class action complaint, by the time Ms. Ferrari joined the Jills in 2009, the Jills were not being paid for participating in Buffalo Bills games, cheerleading practices, numerous personal appearances, modeling sessions, or auditions required to stay on the team.  They were also required to provide “professional instruction” to young girls in the lucrative Junior Jills cheerleading clinic program.

The complaint alleges that defendants failed to pay Ms. Ferrari and her fellow Buffalo Jills cheerleaders and non-performing ambassadors minimum wage for all hours worked and spread of hours premium pay for working more than ten hours in a single workday.  Moreover, the Complaint alleges that Ms. Ferrari and other Jills were required to pay more than $500 for their own uniforms and to pay for other expenses that should have been paid by their employer and to purchase Jills swimsuit calendars and event tickets to sell on their own time.

Another lawsuit containing similar allegations was filed by five former Jills on the same day as a non-representative action.

On March 24, 2014, two days after the lawsuits were filed, Mateczun announced that her company was suspending all operations of the Jills pending the outcome of litigation.  Once again, the Jills were out of work due to another management lockout.

Mateczun later admitted that the Buffalo Bills have been pulling the strings of the Buffalo Jills enterprise all along, stating, “If people believe they don’t maintain influence and control over every part of their operation, including their cheerleaders, they are mistaken.”  Mateczun’s lawyer also noted that the Buffalo Bills had offered to supplement the Jills’ pay for the 2014 NFL season weeks before the lawsuit was filed, but withdrew that commitment to fund the squad in light of pending litigation. 

On May 8, 2014, the NFL held its annual Draft Day at which the Jills traditionally particpate in support of the Buffalo Bills.  However, due to the management lockout, the Jills were benched for this event.  Mateczun’s lawyer commented, “[t]hat is a day that the Jills would ordinarily be expected by the Buffalo Bills to participate in their promotional activities around Draft Day.  We are not going to conduct business as usual as long as these legal issues remain unresolved.

On May 9, 2014, Ms. Ferrari filed an amended complaint adding new allegations concerning the Buffalo Bills control over the Jills and the management lockout.

Like her predecessors, the heroic women of the 1995 -1996 Buffalo Jills, Ms. Ferrari understands the power of collective action.  She filed her case as a class action and will be seeking court certification of a class including all current and former Buffalo Jills since April 22, 2008.

Ms. Ferrari wants to see the Buffalo Jills prosper and continue to support the Buffalo Bills on and off the field, while ensuring that she and other class members are compensated fairly and in accordance with the law for the substantial amount of work that they have provided to their employers.

If you have any information about the employment practices concerning the Buffalo Jills or have any questions about the case, please contact Christopher Marlborough: chris@marlboroughlawfirm.com or call (212) 991-8960. 

A Copy of Ms. Ferrari’s Amended Complaint is Attached Below.

First Amended and Supplemental Class Action Complaint

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