Government officials in Washington state, home to four Western Hockey League teams, have been investigating the working conditions of the teams mostly-teenaged players over the past year, TSN has learned. Matthew Erlich, a spokesman for Washingtons Department of Labor and Industry, told TSN that officials recently referred the case to the state attorney generals office and added that the labor department is waiting for a legal opinion from the attorney general before pursuing its investigation further. "This is a matter that focuses on child labor issues and potential wage-payment claims, both are important at labor and industries, where our top important goal is to ensure workplaces are safe," Erlich said. "Employees should also be paid for the work they do." Over the past few months, the debate over whether major junior hockey players should receive more money for playing has become a polarizing one. On one side, team owners say players receive modest reimbursements for their expenses, as well as a lucrative scholarship package that can be exercised so long as they dont go on to a career as a pro hockey player. Moreover, many teams in small markets are struggling to get by, the owners say. "Our teams in Washington and Michigan have been in contact with government officials and have explained that our players are student athletes and are participating in and contribute to their sport the same way as other amateur athletes," Canadian Hockey League commissioner David Branch told TSN. But officials with Unifor, Canadas largest private-sector union, paint a different picture. They say major junior hockey teams have become cash machines and that any problems that small market teams might have can easily be solved with revenue sharing. Unifor is pressing the Ontario provincial government to form task forces to scrutinize the working conditions in the Canadian Hockey League. Unifor president Jerry Dias hopes other governments follow suit. To that end, Dias met Tuesday with B.C. Premier Christy Clark, making his case for government action. "She was shocked," Dias said. "We explained that in the Western Hockey League, players are still making $50 a week, same as they did in the 1980s. Its just not right. These clubs are being run as for-profit businesses, and so little of the money finds its way to the players. Its basically slave labour." The stakes are high for CHL team owners. Dias said an average 40-hour work week adds up to about 2,000 hours a year. If players in Ontario were paid the minimum wage of $11 per hour for half the year, it would work out to about $11,000 per player, or at least $220,000 a year for each team. Its unclear how much teams now pay for players, but in recent years, the OHL paid players $55 a week. The league recently introduced new guidelines where teams reimburse players for expenses instead of paying them a set weekly amount. Eight of the CHLs 60 teams are based in the U.S. The four teams in Washington are the Everett Silvertips, the Seattle Thunderbirds, the Spokane Chiefs and the Tri-City Americans. In the OHL, the Plymouth Whalers and Saginaw Spirit are in Michigan. If players on U.S.-based teams were declared by the government to be employees, instead of student athletes, as the CHL says they are, they might also have more rights under worker compensation laws. One CHL team owner said that he has been in touch with his local member of provincial parliament to caution that if the governments do change their policies on major junior hockey, it might have a ripple effect on sports across the country. "If we have to pay minimum wage, then other junior leagues, Junior B and Junior C leagues, will have to do the same thing," said the owner, who asked for anonymity because he said CHL team owners have agreed that Branch will speak publicly for the group about the issue. "Maybe it will apply to Canadian universities that charge admission for sports games. It could have a huge effect." But that might not be completely true. Theres a difference between a Junior B hockey player or Canadian university player and a player in major junior - teams in major junior hold a draft and control for years the rights of a player. The players dont choose where to play. "It should not come as a surprise that team owners are active in their communities and some may be in contact with elected officials at all levels to express their views on range of issues," Branch said. "Any change to the status of CHL hockey players would undoubtedly impact all other amateur athletes in our country, regardless of what sport they participate in," he said. 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