Saratoga County

Trainers must adapt to labor rules

As the season at the Oklahoma Training Track winds down, horse trainers say they have a better under

As the season at the Oklahoma Training Track winds down, horse trainers say they have a better understanding of state labor laws about paying backstretch workers.

Trainers expect that few of them will go out of business or be overly burdened by following the law, which requires grooms and hotwalkers to be paid by the hour rather than by the horse or with a flat fee for the week.

Backstretch workers also must be paid overtime if they work more than 40 hours a week, as most do.

The state Department of Labor has sponsored seminars at Belmont Park in recent weeks for trainers to learn about the laws.

Labor Commissioner M. Patricia Smith in August condemned trainers who she said paid less than minimum wage to their workers and stiffed them on overtime.

Smith said trainers who owed money to their workers would be presented with “bills” when the investigation is complete, although trainers wouldn’t be charged fines unless they maintained illegal labor practices.

The department in August released partial results of an investigation at Saratoga Race Course, finding that 80 percent of 110 backstretch workers interviewed were paid less than the state minimum wage or not given overtime pay and few of the 88 trainers interviewed kept adequate payroll records.

The announcement brought attention to the backstretch, where workers — many of them guest workers from Latin America and other countries who have a limited grasp of English — sleep in single-sex concrete dormitories and work seven days a week, often sending as much money home as they can.

“These people are at the bottom, doing jobs that most people don’t want to do,” said Mike Kane, spokesman for the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame. “The department is putting this industry on notice that it’s not going to tolerate the fact that they’re not paying their employees everything that they’re owed.”

But trainers say the backstretch isn’t as bad as the department made it out to be.

“If a guy hasn’t gotten a raise in 20 years, there’s probably a reason,” said Richard Violette Jr., a horse trainer and president of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association.

Violette pointed out that backstretch workers at Saratoga are offered free housing, a limited type of health insurance, a pension, recreation, computer and telephone access, health information and special Sunday appreciation dinners. But most of those perks come not from the trainers themselves but from either the New York Racing Association, which funds the Backstretch Employee Service Team, or private donors.

Workers can live off-track if they want to, Violette said — although few can afford the rent in places like Saratoga Springs.

Del Carroll, a trainer who was issued a violation notice when the Labor Department visited the track, said he and most trainers pay at least minimum wage but pay a salary rather than an hourly rate and don’t keep the payroll records to prove it.

“We’ve been doing things the same way for so long it’s hard for us trainers to change,” Carroll said.

To comply with the law, most trainers will put a time clock in the stable for workers to punch in and out and develop forms and records to show how much workers are paid.

It’s a cultural change, Violette said.

“We very much have been a salaried industry,” he said. “We literally have people living in the barn where they work. Defining the line — when they’re working or hanging out — that could be pretty muddled.”

At the worst, Kane predicts, some trainers who haven’t been following the rules will have to hire fewer workers or raise their daily rate to keep and train owners’ horses.

“Trainers are going to be a lot more careful in making sure that their employees arrive at 5 o’clock in the morning and leave at 10 [a.m.],” Kane said.

Violette agrees: “We have our fast workers and we have our guys who want to take all day.”

He said backstretch workers who have been paid a salary prefer it because they know exactly how much they’re getting every week.

“We’re trying to come up with something within the system that both complies with the law and makes the help content,” Violette said.

The state Department of Labor investigation into backstretch workers’ pay is not yet complete, said Francina Hill, department spokeswoman. Labor Commissioner M. Patricia Smith said in August that a list of trainers who broke the law would be released to the public when the investigation is finished.

Carroll said he doesn’t believe that any trainers have been asked to pay fines yet but they will if they don’t change their ways.

Some trainers don’t have to make changes.

“Thank God we do things the right way,” said trainer James Bond. “We have rules, and rules have to be followed.” Bond already has time clocks in his stables, where workers punch in at the beginning and end of their shifts.

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