For PA Workers’ Compensation, NFL Player Not “Seasonal Employee”

One of the important aspects to the Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation Act (“Act”) is Section 309, which deals with the calculation of the Average Weekly Wage (AWW), controlling the amount of benefits an injured worker in PA will receive.  We have discussed these calculations in previous blog posts.  Additionally, the concept of a “seasonal employee” has been addressed here.  Recently, the Commonwealth Court of PA has again touched on the meaning of “seasonal employee.”

Pittsburgh Steelers Sports, Inc. v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (Trucks) deals with a shoulder injury suffered by a player for the Pittsburgh Steelers.  The compensability of the work injury was not in dispute; in fact, the only issue to be decided was whether the National Football League (NFL) player was a “seasonal employee” for the purposes of determining the AWW (Note that highly paid professional athletes have a special section of Act, for calculating the AWW; the player in this case did not rise to that level).

After hearing the evidence, the first Workers’ Compensation Judge (WCJ) granted the Claim Petition and set the AWW at $3,846.15 (concluding that the player was NOT a “seasonal employee” and that the AWW was determined by dividing the yearly salary by 52 weeks (this was appealed and remanded for unrelated reasons, which I will not bother addressing).  The Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (WCAB) affirmed.

The workers’ comp insurance carrier appealed to the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania, arguing that the WCJ erred in calculating the AWW.  The insurance company asserted that prior case law involving an Arena Football League (AFL) player created the rule that all football players were “seasonal employees,” since the injured worker “could not possibly play football throughout the year.”

In affirming the decision of the WCJ, the Court found that the prior case did not establish a flat rule.  Instead, the facts of the prior case established that the player addressed in THAT case was a “seasonal employee.”  However, the facts of this case differed, and, as such, required a different result.  The first significant difference is that the player in the previous case had a contract only for that one season.  In this case, Mr. Trucks had a two-year contract.  Additionally, the contract signed by Mr. Trucks required he perform tasks beyond simply playing the regular season football games.  Under the contract, Mr. Trucks was contractually obligated to:

“attend all ‘mini-camp(s), official pre-season training camp, all [Employer] meetings and practice sessions, [and] all pre-season, regular season, and post-season football games scheduled for or by [Employer],’ including any all-star football games sponsored by the NFL. (Id.) Claimant was also required to cooperate with the news media in order to promote the NFL. (Id.) Additionally, Claimant was required to attend ten assigned appearances per year on behalf of Employer.”     

The Court found significant that these other obligations required of the injured worker, beyond simply playing football, were not limited to taking place during the regular football season (as were all requirements in the prior case).  Though the payments under Mr. Trucks’ contract were to be made during the regular season, the obligations were not so limited.  Based on these factors, and the fact this was a two-year contract, the Court concluded that the AWW was properly calculated under Section 309(c) (with wages fixed by the year), rather than Section 309(e) (as a “seasonal employee”).

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