ST. PAUL-The owners of the St. Paul Saints are seeking an exemption from having to pay its players Minnesota's minimum wage.

Noting league rules limit the baseball team's payroll, the independent baseball team say without the exemption they could possibly be forced to cease operations.

"We're in a league that has a salary cap," Saints Executive Vice President and General Manager Derek Sharrer told state lawmakers earlier this week. "So ... if minimum wage and overtime laws were to impact us, then we may be in a position to not be able to abide by our league bylaws, which would force us not to be able to operate."

The issue comes just three years after the Saints moved into their new home, CHS Field, in downtown St. Paul. Public funds contributed $51.4 million to the ballpark's construction.

The Saints are part of the American Association of Independent Professional Baseball. That league caps a team's total salary - for the entire 22-person roster - at $115,000 annually.

Players are on contract and make anywhere from $800 to $4,000 per month, depending on their experience. On average, they make $5,227 for the four-month season.

Management doesn't calculate hourly pay since the players' schedules are so unique, Executive Vice President Tom Whaley said.

"Players lead lives that are a lot different than the fans, when the fans get up to go to work," Whaley said. The players "are trainees and apprentices that are coming here to use the set-up in St. Paul and with our league to better their skills and hopefully move on to play in the major leagues someday."

Players typically spend about six hours at the ballpark on game days. With 100 games played per season, that comes out to less than $9 an hour. And that doesn't include any work done in practice, individual training or traveling.

Sharrer estimated Monday that typically between six and eight players on the team make less than minimum wage.

For large employers - those with annual gross revenue of $500,000 or more - the state's hourly minimum wage rose to $9.65 on Jan. 1. For smaller employers, it is $7.87 an hour.

Any problems under the current minimum wage laws, the team says, would almost certainly grow if St. Paul raised its minimum wage laws to $15 an hour, which Mayor Melvin Carter has said is one of his priorities.

"We're watching (the $15 per hour debate) just like every other person in St. Paul. We're no different than anybody else in that it would affect us, potentially significantly," Whaley said.

A federal law allows minor league teams to pay their players less than minimum wage because they are "apprentices," Whaley said. There was an effort about two years ago to clarify that law on a national basis, and since then, other states have been making an effort to realign their laws, Whaley said.

Minnesota law currently allows seasonal employers such as carnivals, circuses, fairs and ski facilities to be exempt from the wage requirements. A proposal by Sen. Dick Cohen, DFL-St. Paul, would add minor league baseball players to that list.

Low pay for minor league baseball players has been a national issue. Major League Baseball and its teams are facing a lawsuit from former and current players, alleging the league doesn't abide by the terms of the Fair Labor Standards Act.

All Saints management wanted was to align Minnesota law concerning minor league baseball wages with federal law, Whaley said. He took the issue to Cohen, who then sponsored such a bill at the Legislature.

But during a Senate committee hearing Monday, the bill was amended to include agricultural requirements regarding seasonal employment - something much larger than Cohen had anticipated.

Cohen asked for the bill to be withdrawn while he attempts to come up with a strategy to pass the bill without the agricultural amendment. He said he's not optimistic.

The Saints are scheduled to begin their 2018 season on May 21.

The St. Paul Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service