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Buffalo Jills suspend all activities

The Buffalo Jills might not be on the sidelines cheering on the Bills when they take the field for their first home game of the season Sept. 14.

The cheerleaders organization has suspended all activities until further notice, after five former Jills sued the Bills and the company that manages the cheerleaders.

Stephanie Mateczun, president of Stejon Productions Corp., which manages the cheerleaders, said she has no idea how long the suspension will last.

“When the time is right, I will be making a statement,” she said in an email to The Buffalo News.

The suspension affects 35 young women who recently were selected for the cheerleading squad.

Mateczun declined to comment on the lawsuit, which alleges that the Bills, her company and Citadel Communications Co. (97 Rock), the Jills’ previous manager, failed to pay the former cheerleaders the $8 minimum wage for all the hours they worked.

It also alleges that the defendants exposed them to degrading treatment at some community events, deducted money from their pay for infractions of rules and kept their gratuities.

“I’d like nothing more than to state our side of the story, but it would be inappropriate to do so while in litigation,” Mateczun said.

She said the decision to suspend all Jills’ activities was made as a result of the lawsuit.

Meanwhile, members of the Buffalo Jills Alumni Association are dismayed over the lawsuit, calling it petty, self-serving and a mischaracterization of the reality of cheerleading.

“Since the inception of the Buffalo Jills in 1967, there’s been over 600 Buffalo Jills, so please don’t judge the Jills or the Jills alumni on the basis of a complaint by five malcontents. They do not define the experience,” said Chris Polito, chairwoman of the alumni group’s board of directors.

“The former Jills have an alumni association with members who work with local charities and who support one another and enjoy the sisterhood that the Jills encourage,” Polito said. “This lawsuit is so petty and self-serving it would be laughable if it did not influence Buffalo’s attitude toward the Jills.

“Cheerleaders across the country have had issues and concerns about their sponsorships,” she added. “I’m frustrated because I feel whenever a brouhaha happens, the focus is diverted away from the issues and toward the cheerleaders.”

Sean Cooney, the attorney representing the five members of the Jills, issued a statement Thursday evening saying his clients were disappointed by the decision to suspend cheerleading activities.

“Like the decision not to pay a lawful wage, this decision was made not by the cheerleaders, but by Jills management,” he said.

“There is no reason an NFL organization cannot run a lawful, professional cheerleading team.”

The suit, filed Tuesday in State Supreme Court in Buffalo, outlines the Jills’ activities. They include game day performances, twice-a-week practices, 20 to 35 appearances a year at corporate, community and charity events, and participation at six annual events.

The mandatory events are Bills NFL Draft Day, Tim Hortons Camp Day, the Jills golf tournament, the Jills swimsuit calendar release party at Turning Stone Casino near Syracuse, Bills training camp near Rochester and the Junior Jills program, which involves workshops in Buffalo, Rochester and Toronto to teach young girls the basics of cheerleading.

The Jills do not receive compensation for most of those activities, according to the legal papers.

The lawsuit says each Jill provides approximately 20 hours of unpaid labor per week for the Bills and the Jills’ managers for much of the year, or about 840 hours of unpaid work per woman, per year.

The five former Jills, who worked as long ago as the 2010-11 season and as recently as the 2013-14 season, were paid amounts ranging from as little as $105 to as much as $1,800 a year, according to the suit, which does not indicate what that compensation was for. But the compensation works out to considerably less than $8 an hour, the suit says.The Bills and the Jills’ managers also failed to reimburse them for certain business expenses, failed to pay them in a timely manner, took illegal deductions and kickbacks from their wages, unlawfully took gratuities paid to the Jills at some events, failed to adhere to the notice and record-keeping provisions of the Wage Theft Prevention Act and unjustly enriched themselves as a result of the Jills’ work, the legal papers say.

The suit says that as a condition of employment, every Jill had to sign a contract classifying them as an “independent contractor,” not an employee.

But the suit maintains they actually were employees of the Bills and Jills’ managers “because the defendants exercised sufficient direction and control over the Jills, including over the results and means of the work, to establish their status as employees.” As employees, they would be covered by the state’s minimum-wage law and other protections.

The suit says the contract is illegal because it violates the minimum-wage law and labor law. The lawsuit alleges that the Jills were forced to endure degrading treatment at some of the six annual events they had to attend, noting that select Jills were required to wear bikinis at the golf tournament and the swimsuit calendar release party and were subjected to degrading sexual comments and inappropriate touching by some of those in attendance.

The suit also alleges that the former cheerleaders were subjected to the “jiggle test” by the defendants to make sure their bodies were trim and that penalties were imposed for failing to pass the test and for other infractions of rules, such as posting a photo on Twitter.

It also contends they were not compensated for out-of-pocket expenses such as their $650 uniforms, hairstylings, nails and travel to out-of-town events such as the calendar release party, the Bills training camp in Rochester and the team’s games in Toronto.

The legal action, filed by attorney Sean E. Cooney of the Buffalo law firm of Dolce Panepinto, comes on the heels of similar lawsuits filed by cheerleaders for the Oakland Raiders and Cincinnati Bengals against their respective teams.

Cooney said he understands from current members of the Jills that the Bills and other NFL teams recently decided to pay their cheerleaders the minimum wage this season.

The Bills have declined to comment on the lawsuit.

News Staff Reporter Jane Kwiatkowski contributed to this report email: