EDITORIAL: State has to do a better job protecting vulnerable track workers

Horses make the final turn at Saratoga Race Course this past racing season.

Horses make the final turn at Saratoga Race Course this past racing season.

How do you get away with this kind of thing these days?

More importantly, how does the New York Racing Association (NYRA) and state labor watchdogs let them get away with it?

Earlier this week, world-famous horse trainer Steve Asmussen, who trains at Saratoga and Belmont among other tracks, was ordered by a federal court to pay more than half-a-million dollars in back wages and penalties for failing to pay overtime to stable workers over a four-year period from 2016-2020.

The unpaid labor for 170 workers amounted to $281,900 — an average of $3,000 per employee. The feds doubled that cumulative figure to bring the total award to $563,800.

Stable workers are the people behind the scenes who make the big colorful splash on the race track happen, who help keep jockeys and horses safe, and whose role in the state’s lucrative horse-racing/betting industry is absolutely vital to its success.

Yet for four years, Asmussen was allowed to get away without paying these 170 workers the full wages they were legally due.

This decision speaks not just to Asmussen and his operation, but to state oversight of labor conditions at its tracks. How was he allowed to get away with this for four years?

According to the Thoroughbred Daily News, this is the third time Asmussen has settled a complaint from the Department of Labor. He was previously sued by the government in 2012 and again in 2015.

Shouldn’t that have raised red flags in New York that this guy needed to be watched and that there were gaps in the system that protects these vulnerable workers, some of whom are unlikely to complain because they desperately need the work or because they fear issues related to their immigration status?

The penalties imposed by the court included over $42,000 in civil penalties, reflecting the willful nature of the violations.

Among the changes Asmussen was ordered to make to his operation were that he is now required to maintain accurate records, adopt an electronic timekeeping system at his New York locations, train supervisors in New York on the Fair Labor Standards Act requirements and provide employees with information on their rights under the act.

He was ordered to maintain accurate records? He was ordered to adopt electronic time-keeping and ordered to educate his staff and workers about the law?

Why aren’t these practices standard operation in New York’s racetracks now, especially after another world-famous trainer, Chad Brown, was fined and ordered to pay back wages totaling more than $1.6 million for similar violations just two years ago?

In order for these violations to keep happening, someone has to be asleep at the wheel.

This ruling should be a wake-up call to New York horse-racing officials and state government that they need to do a much better job protecting racetrack workers from this kind of exploitation.

Categories: Editorial, Opinion

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