Friday, August 29, 2008

NY Track Workers Robbed by Employers

Racetrack Workers Aren’t Paid Minimum Wage, State Agency Finds


Published: August 27, 2008
With its stately beau monde setting, the Saratoga Race Course is the place to be in August for highbrow horse lovers. But a State Labor Department investigation has found a far less attractive picture for the track’s 1,200 backstretch workers.

The state labor commissioner, M. Patricia Smith, announced on Wednesday that 80 percent of the 110 backstretch workers investigators interviewed — grooms, hot walkers and night watchmen — were not paid minimum wage or time and a half for overtime.

The backstretch workers are employed by individual trainers, who typically train horses for several thoroughbred owners. Some workers told investigators that they were paid just $5.06 an hour, far less than the state minimum wage of $7.15 an hour, Ms. Smith said.

In addition, workers told of being bitten by bedbugs in the racetrack’s dormitories and of eating at soup kitchens because they could not afford the restaurants in Saratoga Springs.

“The violations we uncovered were extensive and significant,” Commissioner Smith said in a telephone interview. “With many workers forced to go to soup kitchens, one can only conclude that the work at the backstretch at Saratoga is a bad bet.”

She estimated that the 1,200 backstretch workers were cheated out of $70,000 in pay each week because of wage violations. Some workers said their pay had not risen in a decade.

Beginning in late July, when the track opened for the season and Saratoga Springs swelled with racetrack fans, 10 state investigators descended on the historic track and interviewed workers in the dorms and horse stalls, where track visitors rarely go.

The investigators found that most of the workers — more than 95 percent of whom are Hispanic — were required to work seven days a week, and often more than 360 days a year when their work included time at the two New York City-area tracks, Aqueduct and Belmont, the Labor Department said.

The hot walkers walk the horses to cool them down after they exercise, while the grooms brush and bathe the horses, rub them down and muck out their stalls.

Lauro Ventura, 61, a groom for 15 years, said in a telephone interview on Wednesday that living conditions at the track were bad. “Three or four of us sleep in a room that’s 10 by 10,” he said in Spanish. “Some guys sleep on air mattresses, some buy little cots, and some just sleep on the floor.”

Bedbugs are a big problem in the dorms, he added. “A lot of the workers bring their sleeping bags from Belmont, where the bedbug problems are much worse,” he said.

Ms. Smith said her department would hold seminars on labor laws for all horse trainers doing business in New York. She said she also wanted to work with the State Racing and Wagering Board to see whether labor law violations should be taken into account in licensing trainers.

Charles Hayward, chief executive of the New York Racing Association, which runs Saratoga, Belmont and Aqueduct, the state’s largest thoroughbred tracks, said the association was concerned about the findings of the investigation.

“N.Y.R.A. shares Commissioner Smith’s concern that workers who are employed by independent trainers on the backstretch are treated fairly and with dignity,” Mr. Hayward said, “both in respect to their living conditions and their ability to earn a living wage.”

The investigators interviewed 88 of the Saratoga track’s 115 trainers, and concluded that 77 of them had failed to keep legally required time and payroll records, Ms. Smith said. The trainers interviewed did not dispute the wage and hour figures that investigators found, she said.

The Labor Department computed that the hot walkers were underpaid by an average of $71.65 each week and the grooms by $82.31.

Mr. Ventura said he was paid $475 a week for about 55 hours of work, which comes to slightly more than $7.15 an hour when overtime is included. But he said that some friends who worked the same schedule were paid only $300 a week.

Jose Ramon Rivera, a hot walker, said in a telephone interview, “We’re fighting for all the grooms, hot walkers and night watchmen to get paid the minimum wage of $7.15 an hour, and overtime after they work 40 hours.”

Ms. Smith said the Labor Department would continue the investigation at Aqueduct and Belmont when the workers moved back there.

The racetrack investigation is part of a stepped-up effort by the department to uncover wage violations in low-wage industries. Two weeks ago, Ms. Smith announced that labor investigators had visited 84 carwashes across the state and found $6.5 million in wage violations involving 1,380 workers.

Mr. Ventura, the groom, discussed another issue that investigators found troubling: the conditions under which the backstretch workers travel when they accompany horses from track to track.

“The trainers want us to be inside the trailer with the horse because sometimes the horse goes crazy,” Mr. Ventura said. “They want us to calm him. The trailer is so small there is no chair for us to sit on. Sometimes we just sit on the floor and risk getting stepped on.”

On one trip, the driver slammed on the brakes, Mr. Ventura said, and he went flying under the horse. His hand and back were stepped on, and his eye was gashed open. He said a track doctor told him he should take a few days off from work, but when the trainer said he would not pay him for missed days, Mr. Ventura decided to work anyway.

“If we don’t work the days we’re injured, we don’t get paid,” he said.

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