The department said a recent amendment to exempt the league from labor laws clarified the league’s athletes don’t enjoy child-labor protections.
An investigation of the Western Hockey League (WHL) for possible child-labor violations by the state Department of Labor and Industries ended without a decision.
Department spokesman Matthew Erlich said a state law amended in the spring exempted the league from many labor laws, such as minimum-wage and child-labor protections, prompting the investigation to close.
The department began investigating after a 2013 complaint by Glenn Gumbley on behalf of an organization he calls the Canadian Hockey League Players Association.
The investigation could have decided if the league’s athletes were considered employees under state law, which would make the league pay players minimum wage and limit hours athletes could work, among other things.
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The 22-team, for-profit junior hockey league is based in Canada but has teams in Kent, Everett, Spokane and Kennewick. Its athletes are mostly ages 16-20, and some attend high school. The league has operated in the state since 1977.
Many from the league argued that without the exemptions, they couldn’t operate in Washington and would have to leave the state.
In Olympia, there was wide support to exempt the league, including from pro-labor lawmakers.
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.
In the House, lawmakers approved the exemptions 91-7. In the Senate, it was 47-1, with one person excused from voting.
The league argued its players are amateur athletes and compensated in other ways.
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.
Some players, including Luke Walter, who played for the Tri-City Americans for two years, argued WHL players are professional athletes and employees.
Walter claimed in a 2014 lawsuit in Calgary, Alberta, filed against the league that he worked, on average, 35 to 40 hours a week and occasionally up to 65 hours when including travel time. He said he got no hourly wages, overtime pay, holiday pay or other benefits.
“We were made to act like pros … we do all this stuff which pros do,” Walter told The Times in February. “You’re getting paid a little bit of money right? That’s professional.”
The scholarships, Walter said, came with strings attached, such as deadlines for use, which blocked many from using them.
Around half of WHL athletes use their scholarships, according to Corey St. Laurent, a spokesman for the league.
Gumbley said “everything points in the direction that they’re employees,” and added that given the amount of information he relayed to Labor and Industries, “for them to come to this conclusion is astonishing.”
“What gets me, is, there was law in place,” he said. “They had to obviously amend it for this purpose. If they weren’t considered employees, why bother amending the law?”
Representatives from the WHL and the Seattle Thunderbirds were not available for comment.