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WASHINGTON, D.C. — In a decision that could have nationwide implications, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has ruled that members of a lacrosse officials association in western Pennsylvania are employees of the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association (PIAA) as opposed to being independent contractors.

On July 11 the board voted to uphold a ruling by an NLRB regional director in July 2015 that declared that members of the Allegheny Lacrosse Officials Association (ALOA) are in fact employees of the PIAA and thus are eligible to unionize. The PIAA had contended that the officials were independent contractors and therefore did not have the right to unionize.

The vote was 2-1; two of the five seats on the board are currently vacant.

The ALOA has approximately 150 members and assigns officials for approximately 40 high schools in the Pittsburgh area. Chuck Ruslavage of Canonsberg, Pa., a member of the association, has worked lacrosse for eight years and football for 14.

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A high school physics teacher by profession, Ruslavage says the dispute between the officials and the state governing body arose a few years ago when the schools in the Pittsburgh area opted to alter their assignment and fee structure. “(Officials) have no representation or bargaining position with the PIAA,” he said. “The only way to get that bargaining power was to organize and form a union.”

Dr. Bob Lombardi, the PIAA’s executive director, says the ruling didn’t come as a surprise.

“The decision was disappointing,” he said. “However, it didn’t surprise us because we know that the previous administration packed the board with pro-labor type of folks.”

The PIAA could appeal the ruling to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Lombardi says for the time being the organization is considering its options. “We could negotiate, I believe, with the union,” he says, “or we could possibly pursue other avenues. We need to see what our legal options are as well as our practical options so we’re in the process of going through that.”

Ruslavage says the ALOA looks forward to meeting with the PIAA to negotiate a contract that covers game fees and working conditions. He notes that at one time it was customary for a two-person crew to work a JV/varsity doubleheader but notes that in recent years schools have requested separate crews for each game.

Ruslavage expects to see other officials associations become full-fledged unions in the future.

“I think it’s a trend,” he said. “I think it’s a necessary trend. I think it’s where the rest of the country is going to go.”

Lombardi said that the PIAA now has almost 14,000 registered officials on its rolls. He said if those officials are determined to be employees it would be a major burden to the organization. “We would end up with almost 14,000 employees,” he said. “Obviously, there are tax implications, there are IRS implications, there are local and state tax implications, there are 1099 implications.

“We have heard from the rank and file official. The majority of them say, ‘We want no part of this.’”

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