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 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.
News Staff Reporter Jane Kwiatkowski contributed to this report.