This week, in workplaces across America, millions of employees—up to 50 million of them by some estimates—will be filling in brackets and participating in “March Madness” office pools. The amount of money wagered in these office pools each year is believed to be as much as $3 billion. Beyond the losses in productivity associated with these office pools, which can be substantial, employers have another concern about these activities: are they illegal? The short answer is, yes, that office pool is against the law.
Only Nevada permits wagering on college sports. And while the provisions of the laws vary widely, statutes in most states prohibit the type of wagering associated with March Madness and Super Bowl office pools, and fantasy football leagues. Federal regulations also prohibit workers on government-owned property from engaging in gambling. Legislatures in some states have considered easing restrictions on these types of small-scale, social betting activities. However, these proposals have generally failed to gain much traction. A bill to legalize March Madness and Super Bowl gambling pools has been proposed in the Massachusetts Legislature on multiple occasions without success.
While there have been some cases, like this one in Rhode Island, and this one in North Attleboro, Massachusetts, where people have faced charges in connection with betting on sports at work, arrest and prosecution for organizing or participating in an office pool is unlikely. Just the same, employers should not condone, and certainly should not organize or facilitate, illegal betting at work. Among the risks that could face employers who are aware of, and turn a blind eye to, illegal gambling in the office are potential charges of hostile work environment by employees who feel that they are intimidated or ridiculed for choosing not to participate in the office pool, or a claim of retaliation by an employee who tries to “blow the whistle” on other employees’ gambling activities.