State of Washington confirms WHL labour investigation, Oregon "monitoring" the situation

Scott Sepich

A TSN story published on Wednesday revealed that the labour department in U.S. state of Washington is currently investigating the state’s four WHL teams over allegations that players are not being paid enough for their services.

Four of the WHL’s five American teams are in Washington: the Everett Silvertips, Spokane Chiefs, Tri-City Americans (who play in Kennewick) and Seattle Thunderbirds (who play in Kent).

Thursday, Chris Daniels of television station KING 5 in Seattle elaborated on the allegations:

Matt Erlich, a spokesman for the Washington Department of Labor and Industries, said that a 2013 complaint to the department pointed to how much money the players were paid in relation to time worked. The allegation hinted that it may be below the state’s minimum wage.

Four Washington WHL teams are the subject of the investigation: Seattle (Kent), Everett, Tri-Cities, and Spokane. Erlich would not comment on where the complaint originated, but said it came from within the state.

Many of the players are 16 or 17, and stay with host families during the season. The teams provide the room and board and a promise of college scholarships after their playing careers. It’s unclear just how much a typical player is paid.

Canadian broadcaster TSN quotes a union representive who claimed the “for-profit” league is paying some players as little as $50 a week, and equated the WHL with “slave labour.” That same union representative claimed players work about 1,000 hours during the course of the season. In Washington State, that would mean at $9.32 an hour each player should receive at least $9,320. (KING 5)

Because of the active investigation, Erlich wrote in an email to Buzzing the Net on Friday that the complaint — which was filed in 2013 — is confidential at this time. He did say in the email that the department received only one complaint about the WHL teams.

In a separate email on Friday, a representative for the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries wrote that the WHL’s other U.S. team, the Portland Winterhawks, is not currently under investigation.

Spokesman Charlie Burr continued, however, by writing that the bureau is “aware of the allegations (in Washington) and are monitoring them closely, including being in touch with other state enforcement agencies and the U.S. Department of Labor.”

Oregon received one complaint this year about work conditions for the Winterhawks, which was filed in January by Glenn Gumbley, the controversial CHLPA leader who has reportedly handed off CHL union efforts to Unifor, a private-sector union in Canada.

In his complaint to Oregon, Gumbley expresses frustration over what he says had been “several attempts to submit a complaint regarding child labor violations and minimum wage violations against the Portland Winterhawks.”

Gumbley also claims to have “details and evidence which will show that the Portland Winterhawks and their hockey players share an employer/employee relationship.”

At this point, it appears Oregon has declined to take up Gumbley on his offer. And by “monitoring” the situation in Washington, it seems that Oregon may be waiting to see how its neighbor handles the situation before taking any action.

While one might assume that Gumbley is responsible for the complaint in Washington, the KING 5 report notes that the complaint originated within the state. That seems to make it unlikely that it was registered by Gumbley.

Gumbley has doggedly continued his CHLPA efforts over the last two years, despite an initial fiasco that included ex-NHLer Georges Laraque quitting as the face of the organization after a few weeks, the questionable collection of union cards from the QMJHL team in Sherbrooke and a spokesman named Derek Clarke whose existence came into question.

Scott Sepich covers the WHL for Buzzing the Net. Follow him on Twitter @ssepich. (photo: Getty Images)