Cubs cut grounds crew’s hours to avoid paying health benefits — sources

BY GORDON WITTENMYER Staff Reporter

August 21, 2014 10:26PM

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Updated: August 22, 2014 10:55PM

Thanks a lot, Obama.

Add the Affordable Care Act – or, specifically, the big-business Cubs’ response to it – to the causes behind Tuesday night’s tarp fiasco and rare successful protest by the San Francisco Giants.

The staffing issues that hamstrung the grounds crew Tuesday during a mad dash with the tarp under a sudden rainstorm were created in part by a wide-ranging reorganization last winter of game-day personnel, job descriptions and work limits designed to keep the seasonal workers – including much of the grounds crew – under 130 hours per month, according to numerous sources with direct knowledge.

That’s the full-time worker definition under “Obamacare,” which requires employer-provided healthcare benefits for “big businesses” such as a major league team.

“Cheap,” said one of three high-ranking officials from other organizations the Sun-Times contacted Thursday – all of whom fall below the Cubs on Forbes’ annual revenues list.

Speaking to the industry standard for grounds crew staffing, all three officials said the video of Tuesday’s incident showed an apparently “undermanned” crew (of 15 pulling the tarp on the night’s first unsuccessful try).

“Embarrassing,” said one, “and they got caught.”

The Cubs played damage control on the issue much of Thursday, insisting staffing played no role in the problem and defending “the best head groundskeeper in the business,” as team spokesman Julian Green called the widely respected Roger Baird.

That the Baird and his grounds crew are better than most at their jobs and handled Tuesday as well as could be expected was not in dispute from anybody involved, ranging from umpires to Cubs executives, other team officials, players and media.

The issue is the short hand Baird was dealt by policies driven from the top of the business and stadium side of the operation, leading to a national embarrassment – which might have been preventable, if not foreseeable.

Sources say 10 crew members were sent home early by the bosses Tuesday night with little, if any, input from the field-level supervisors

Green doesn’t dispute that but says it’s common practice when the forecast calls for clear weather as he claimed Tuesday’s forecast did (contrary to several reports that day).

But sources say this year’s protocol has changed dramatically since the off-season shakeup with game-day personnel in anticipation of the ACA taking effect – along with the experience level in many areas because of resulting attrition.

“There have been organizational changes,” Green acknowledges. “Every organization, whether it’s baseball or corporate, is always continuing to evaluate inefficiencies, and obviously that translates to ours.

“We’re no different than any organization trying to gain efficiencies. However, our efforts to manage costs had nothing to do with the episode on Tuesday night.”

Multiple sources involved that night insist it had a direct and obvious impact, especially when compared to previous seasons.

No game-day employees would go on the record, they said, fearing reprisals including possible termination for talking to media. Baird referred questions to Green.

One of the rival-team officials scoffed at the “cost managing” efforts in such critical game management areas by a team ranked among the top five in the majors in revenues – and that has spent millions on rapidly expanding its roster of baseball and business executives in recent years.

All said their teams did not make changes in their operations, regardless of the ACA.

“You get what you pay for,” said another.

Green said that even with the off-season changes, there “was no line reduction in grounds crew/field maintenance budget.”

Maybe it’s a transition issue with the new individual hour limits imposed or a matter of spreading the same hours over more events (a recent high school showcase at Wrigley, more extra inning games, including the longest in franchise history, for instance).

But the people on the ground say the difference is clear.

And to even take the chance of erring on the side of understaffing after a process to “evaluate inefficiencies” would seem to contradict chairman Tom Ricketts’ repeated mission statement of building “the best organization in baseball.”

“We are always evaluating, as any organization, trying to balance cost efficiencies,” Green said in response, “but we’re not going to do that at the expense of not making sure we can take care of Wrigley Field.”

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