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Buffalo Bill cheerleaders join NFL push-'em-back, sue over wages

By Curtis Skinner

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Five former Buffalo Bills cheerleaders have sued the New York state football team, claiming it violated state wage laws by forcing them to work hundreds of hours without pay, cover their own travel expenses and spend hundreds of dollars on uniforms.

The lawsuit, filed Tuesday in New York State Supreme Court by the former Buffalo Jills, is the third case this year brought against National Football League teams claiming wage violations. It follows similar suits brought by members of the Oakland Raiderettes and Cincinnati Ben-Gals.

The five cheerleaders, who worked between 2010 and 2014, said in the complaint that the team and two companies that managed the cheer squad took unlawful deductions from their wages (including the cost of uniforms), forced them to work up to 840 unpaid hours a year - the equivalent of 21 40-hour weeks - at practices and promotional events and made them pay $650 for their uniforms.

They also said the team levied penalties on cheerleaders who failed the "jiggle test," a visual inspection of a dancer's body fat.

"So many of us dreamed of being Buffalo Jills since we were little girls. When I made the team, I thought I was starting the best chapter of my life. I soon realized it wasn't a dream come true at all, but a nightmare," said a plaintiff who gave her name as Alyssa U, in a statement.

The cheerleaders' full names were also omitted from the court filing in an effort to protect them from potential retaliation.

According to the complaint, Alyssa U was paid $420 for all of her work as a Buffalo Jill during the 2012-2013 football season. That same year, Bills defensive end Mario Williams was paid about $16 million, the eighth-highest average annual salary in the NFL, according to Forbes.

"We are aware of this lawsuit, and it is our organizational policy not to comment on pending litigation," the team said in a statement.

A similar suit filed in February by Alexa Brenneman of the Cincinnati Ben-Gals said she was paid only $855 for over 300 hours of work during the 2013 season, or roughly $2.85 an hour. That suit followed a class action filed against California's Oakland Raiders in January, which said the team's cheerleaders were paid roughly $5 an hour.

Twenty-six of the 32 NFL franchises have official cheerleader squads, each with some two to three dozen members.

The Jills' suit seeks the unpaid balance of their wages under minimum wage laws, repayment of any deducted wages and court costs.

The NFL is one of the most successful professional sports leagues in the world, bringing in around $10 billion in revenue a year.

"(The lawsuit) is trying to leverage the fame and wealth that the Bills have and suggest that they're cheapskates," said Michael LeRoy, a labor law expert at the University of Illinois. "The bottom line is if they can prove that they weren't paid while they were performing, then they have a case."

(Editing by Scott Malone; Editing by Prudence Crowther)

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