Michael Hiltzik
Column

The truth about football stadiums: Those supposed great new jobs are bogus

The creation of scads of great new long-term jobs is one of the siren calls of proposals for fancy new football stadiums.

That prospect played a central role, for example, in the pitch for the new Inglewood stadium for the new-model Los Angeles Rams of the National Football League. The stadium was projected to create "10,465 full- and part-time jobs" after construction was complete, according to the initiative passed hurriedly last year by the Inglewood City Council (without a public vote). 

But a lawsuit filed Tuesday against the firm operating concessions at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, the site of Super Bowl 50, gives some insight into just what kind of employment this is. It's low-wage workers routinely ripped off by their employers, according to the lawsuit's allegations.  

The class-action case, filed in state court in Santa Clara, names Centerplate of Delaware as the chief defendant. That's the concession firm selling food and drinks at Levi's Stadium, where the San Francisco 49ers normally play. Centerplate is also has been the food and drink concessionaire at the NFL San Diego Chargers' Qualcomm Stadium, and at baseball's San Francisco Giants' AT&T Park, among some 300 venues in the U.S., Canada and Britain. The complaint alleges that workers at the Super Bowl were deprived of hours of legally mandated pay and of rest periods during their shifts. Stamford, Conn.-based Centerplate declined to comment on the lawsuit. 

The named plaintiff is Gabriel Thompson, a freelance writer who worked for Centerplate at Levi's for four games this NFL season, including the Super Bowl. Thompson separately recounted his experiences on the job for Slate.com; his pieces can be found here and here.

Centerplate typically operates under the radar; most customers at its venues probably don't even know it exists. The firm briefly bubbled into public awareness in 2014 thanks to the behavior of its former CEO, Desmond Hague, who was charged with abusing a puppy in his care — unfortunately for him, in full view of a surveillance camera in an elevator. Centerplate fired Hague soon after the video surfaced. He later pleaded guilty to animal cruelty and was fined $5,000 in a Canadian court; at his sentencing, his lawyer said he had been unable to find a new job.

The wage theft of the sort alleged by the Thompson lawsuit is a common complaint of low-wage workers, who typically have few options for redress. California has been a leader in cracking down. Last year, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill augmenting punishments for employers who cheat their workers, and in 2014, State Controller John Chiang launched a program to sue employers who flouted wage and hour rules.

But cheated workers face an uphill battle. A 2013 study by UCLA's Labor Center found that California workers collected only 42% of the back wages they were owed from 2008 to 2011. Only 17% of workers who obtained a judgment against their employer saw any money at all.

Thompson's lawsuit alleges that he and other workers at the Super Bowl were cheated of pay for the time they spent queuing up for shuttle buses taking them to the stadium from a staging point miles away and back again after the game, and for the time they spent on the buses. That travel time came to five hours, Thompson says, for which he got no pay, even though under California law, that time is compensable.

The cheating was subtle, Thompson suggests in his Slate pieces. He got paid time-and-a-half for all the hours he was at the stadium, which sounds generous. But he calculated that had he been paid at the regular legal rates for his entire work day, including the travel time — straight time of $12.25 per hour for up to 12 hours, plus up to double time for hours beyond that — his paycheck for the day would have been $70 higher than it was.

"Looking back at the Super Bowl," he wrote, "what strikes me is the extraordinary amount of attention that was given to topics like the quality of the turf at Levi's Stadium, and how little consideration was given to the thousands of workers who made the event possible."

Thompson's experience illuminates the true nature of the employment so freely bandied about by promoters of stadium deals. The game day work is close to minimum wage, but worse than that, it's sporadic. An NFL stadium hosts eight home games per season, not including playoff or preseason games. While the rest of the year can be filled in with special events, those are sporadic, too. At Levi's, the home game payroll reaches about 4,500 persons, mostly low-wage cooks, waiters, janitors, security guards, parking attendants and ticket takers. Permanent stadium jobs in departments such as marketing and sales number only about 60. 

That's the real jobs harvest that will be collected in Inglewood. The projection of 10,465 jobs offered by the stadium's promoters look more like fantasy, if not a lie. The question for Inglewood isn't whether its taxpayers will realize they've been sold a bill of goods by the billionaires behind the Rams' relocation and the stadium construction, but how soon it will happen?

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