A complaint lodged with L&I in 2013 asserted that league players, mostly ages 16-20, are employees of the for-profit teams who deserve benefits they don’t currently receive, such as minimum-wage and child-labor protections.

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Glenn Gumbley thinks the Washington Legislature is sanctioning child-labor violations by junior hockey-league teams in the state, such as the Seattle Thunderbirds and Everett Silvertips.

Even though the state Department of Labor and Industries (L&I) recently closed a child-labor investigation into Washington’s four Western Hockey League (WHL) teams without making a decision, newly released documents from the investigation show departmental legal analysis that Gumbley says proves his point and will help him continue to follow up with the state and perhaps spur federal inquiries.

Gumbley, president of an organization he calls the Canadian Hockey League Players’ Association, lodged a complaint with L&I in 2013 asserting that league players, mostly ages 16-20, are employees who deserve benefits they don’t currently receive, such as minimum-wage and child-labor protections.

As L&I investigated, WHL asked state lawmakers to exempt the league from much of labor law, such as the minimum wage and hourly work limits for minors, saying the players are amateur athletes, akin to college or high-school sports teams, not employees.

The Legislature in April overwhelmingly approved the exemptions, which led L&I to issue the “no decision” this month. Department spokesman Matthew Erlich described the exemptions as clarifying existing law.

Many in the 22-team league based in Canada have echoed Erlich’s statement, and point to the league’s operation in the state since 1977. Some league athletes attend high school, some take online-college courses and some are not in school. The teams are for-profit organizations.

“The Washington State Department of Labor and Industries reached the right result by dismissing the case …” said WHL Commissioner Ron Robison, in a written statement.

Employees or not?

The probe by L&I was primarily looking to see if the league was committing child-labor violations. But to do that, the department first had to decide if the league’s athletes were considered employees.

Legal analysis during the investigation pointed toward a yes.

Assistant Attorney General Katy Dixon sent memos to L&I in October 2014 and April 2015, saying “the only exception to the broad definition of employee contained in the Industrial Welfare Act that might apply to the players is the exception for interns/trainees …”

The welfare act holds much of the state’s labor laws such as minimum wage. She added in the memos that the league “probably” didn’t meet the six-part test to determine if its players were interns.

Similar analysis by Kelly Kane of L&I in March said WHL athletes should be “treated as employees for the purposes of the Child Labor Laws in Washington State.”

League officials testified in Olympia that WHL athletes under 18 couldn’t play if they were considered employees. At most, with a special waiver, minors can work 28 hours a week in Washington during the school year.

Luke Walter, who played two seasons for the Tri-City Americans, claimed in a 2014 lawsuit against the league that he averaged 35 to 40 hours a week and occasionally up to 65 hours, when including travel time.

Players don’t get paid an hourly wage, and earlier in 2015, the league said its players get a $50-a-week stipend, room, board and opportunities for full-ride scholarships to the college of their choice.

Gumbley, who founded the Canadian Hockey League Players’ Association in 2012 and has been pushing the labor issue in Canada and Oregon, said the memos prove “anybody with legal background and common sense knows they’re employees.”

After the Legislature passed the exemptions, the investigation was closed, making the analysis moot, according to L&I.

Opportunities for athletes

The exemptions may not please Gumbley, but there was wide support in Olympia to exempt the league, including from lawmakers generally backed by labor.

Six sponsors of the original bill also sponsored bills to raise Washington’s minimum wage. Of those six, five live in or near Spokane and Everett, where WHL teams are located, such as House labor committee members Rep. Mike Sells, D-Everett, and Rep. Timm Ormsby, D-Spokane.

In the House, lawmakers approved the exemptions 91-7. In the Senate, it was 47-1, with one person excused from voting.

Another sponsor, Democratic Rep. Marcus Riccelli of Spokane, where the Chiefs play, said he supports the exemptions because they provide unique opportunities for the athletes. The exemptions, he said, were “backed by people that have a strong record with labor.”

The House bill’s prime sponsor, Rep. Drew MacEwen, R-Union, said he didn’t think the players were even in the realm of child-labor law.

Many lawmakers voiced that the teams are economic drivers in the state.

In the investigation’s documents, lawyers for the WHL compared the league’s players to the University of Washington men’s basketball team.

It appears, at one point, that L&I disagreed.

The Industrial Welfare Act did apply to league, according to Kane’s March analysis, and “The Teams are benefiting more than the players on a for-profit basis.” The analysis adds that universities and high schools are nonprofit organizations, while each WHL team is its own for-profit organization.

Fight could go federal

“I don’t feel there was a very robust conversation [in the Legislature],” said Joe Kendo, the government-affairs director for the Washington State Labor Council. The organization, often in line with many of the bill’s supporters, was one of the few dissenting voices at the Capitol.

“I think that there are a whole class of workers, essentially, that are being denied rights that they once had, and no longer do,” Kendo said.

He said legislators don’t want to be known for losing the hockey team in their city, but said he didn’t buy it when WHL representatives said teams would have to leave without the exemptions. Kendo said he was severely disappointed with the outcome of the investigation, and he didn’t like pro-labor lawmakers OK’ing the exemptions.

Mary Miller, a child-labor specialist who spent 14 years at L&I, was part of the investigation before recently leaving the department. She said she disagreed with the exemptions and thinks the players are employees.

“For this bill to come along and alter the Industrial Welfare Act is disturbing,” Miller said.

Gumbley isn’t giving up. He said he grew up playing hockey and has been passionate about securing wages for WHL athletes for some time. He is looking into filing complaints with the U.S. Department of Labor, and said he filed one with the IRS concerning back taxes the teams would owe if their players were to be considered employees.

For now, the Olympia-backed exemptions ensure the WHL will continue to operate as is. The Seattle Thunderbirds open their preseason Sept. 4, against the Tri-City Americans.