Are Junior Hockey Players Employees?
The Western Hockey League (WHL) has existed since 1977 and has four teams in Washington: the Seattle Thunderbirds, Everett Silvertips, Tri-City Americans, and Spokane Chiefs. Although the teams are for-profit organizations, the players are considered amateur athletes. Many attend high school, some take online college classes, and others are not in school at all. By playing in the league, players get a $50 per week stipend, room and board, potential future college tuition assistance, and the opportunity to develop skills, which may in turn lead to opportunities to play at the collegiate or professional level.
In 2013, an organization called the Canadian Hockey League Players’ Association (CHLPA) filed a complaint with the Washington Department of Labor and Industries (L&I) contending that the league’s players, most of whom are ages 16–20, are employees and thus should receive minimum wage, overtime, and the other protections of Washington law. The CHLPA further alleged that players under the age of 18 should also receive the benefit of the child labor laws.
In response to this challenge to its business model, the WHL lobbied legislators in Olympia to exempt the league from such requirements. In April 2015, the Washington legislature easily (91–7 in the House and 47–1 in the Senate) passed legislation amending RCW 49.12.005 and RCW 49.46.010 and exempting the WHL from the Washington wage and hour requirements. Governor Inslee signed the legislation in May 2015. Although L&I ended its investigation as moot, it appears that absent the statutory exception L&I would have concluded the players should have been considered employees because, among other things, while high school and college athletes play in nonprofit organizations, the WHL teams by contrast are for-profit organizations.
This situation presents interesting competing considerations. The players benefit from the opportunity to play in the WHL, team owners benefit from a business model which keeps wage costs down, fans benefit because ticket prices would need to be much higher if the players were paid as employees, and the local areas that have teams benefit from the economic activity the WHL games generate. The wage and hour laws are a creature of statute, and here the legislature concluded amending the statute to maintain the status quo was appropriate.