State Labor Commissioner M. Patricia Smith says that backstretch worker pay and living conditions have long been an ugly part of thoroughbred racing that is breezily swept under the rug as people enjoy a day at the races.
But now the state Department of Labor plans to demand that trainers who pay less than minimum wage give back wages and appropriate overtime pay to their workers.
Smith announced Wednesday the preliminary results of a continuing investigation that started at Saratoga Race Course in July. During five visits to the backstretch, department investigators interviewed 110 backstretch workers and 88 trainers, Smith said at a news conference in Albany on Wednesday. The probe found that 80 percent of 110 low-wage backstretch workers interviewed were underpaid and few of the 88 trainers interviewed kept required payroll records.
In all, the investigated trainers owe $42,000 to their workers, Smith said.
Some workers said they made as little as $5 an hour; the state minimum wage is $7.15. Most workers are paid a set weekly amount no matter how many hours they work, and many trainers didn’t keep track of the number of hours worked, even though they are required to, Smith said.
“They basically ignored the actual hours they worked,” she said.
The violations were found among grooms, hotwalkers and watchmen and not among exercise riders and assistant trainers, who are more well-paid.
Since there weren’t records for most workers, labor investigators questioned workers about their daily schedules and tabulated the hours. Trainers who were asked about workers’ schedules mostly gave the same answers as workers did, Smith said.
One trainer said many of the violations probably stem from a misunderstanding of the labor laws rather than a desire to be unfair to workers. Richard Violette, who is also president of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, said trainers thought they were allowed to put backstretch workers on salary and pay them a set amount per week.
“Trainers have been talking a lot, scratching their heads, wondering what the violations were,” Violette said. He said he believes that his pay practices are in compliance with the law.
Backstretch workers typically work seven days a week and average more than 40 hours a week, but some didn’t get overtime pay for the extra hours, Smith said.
Smith said she expects to find more underpayments as the investigation continues, since there are about 1,200 backstretch workers employed by 115 trainers in New York.
“We are going to find much more extensive violations,” she said. “Our message to the workers is, ‘We want to talk to you; we want to find out if you’ve been underpaid.’ ”
In six to eight weeks, when the investigation is complete, Smith said, the department will present “bills” to the trainers detailing how much they owe to their workers. Trainers will have an opportunity to dispute the amounts.
Although the department could fine the trainers and bring criminal charges against them, Smith said that isn’t the intent right off the bat, although the department may do so if trainers resist paying the workers what they’re owed.
Smith said she plans to notify labor departments in other states where there is horse racing, although she only has control over compliance with the laws while the trainers and workers are in New York.
“I don’t want a trainer to feel that he can flee New York state and willy-nilly violate the law,” Smith said.
Trainers that retaliate against workers who have cooperated with the investigation will be prosecuted, she added.
“We will be watching them. We’ve had assurances from [the New York Racing Association, which operates the track] that they will be watching them,” she said.
Violette said trainers requested educational seminars from the department to explain the labor laws.
“We actually suggested it, and they quickly took us up on it,” he said.
Smith said she met with Charles Hayward, president and chief executive officer of NYRA, on Monday to discuss the findings. NYRA officials said they would cooperate fully with the department’s investigation.
NYRA has no control over what backstretch workers are paid since they are employed by individual trainers, officials there pointed out.
Some workers who have worked on the backstretch for years told the department that their wages haven’t increased in 10 or 20 years, Smith said.
When asked why the department hadn’t investigated the payments before now, Smith said she couldn’t answer for the previous administration.
A backstretch worker from the Dominican Republic who has worked two years on the backstretch said at the news conference that he wanted to speak out for his co-workers.
Jose Ramon Rivera, 50, said most backstretch workers either don’t know the minimum wage laws or are afraid to speak out. Rivera’s pay from trainer William Badgett is in compliance with the law, he said.
“But I’m not here to speak just for myself. I’m here to speak for everybody and the situation of the majority of the people,” he said through an interpreter.
Rivera also said workers would like one day off per week.
But Violette said he doubted workers would want the day off if their pay was docked for it. They might spend that day working for another trainer to make up the money, he speculated.
Also, if trainers are required to pay backstretch workers by the hour, they’ll be stricter about workers not taking breaks, Violette said. Grooms now typically get paid by the horse they work on, so they have a more flexible schedule and can work at their own pace.
“There will be a different framework in place,” he said. “The same money will be paid.”
Smith said the investigators found egregious conditions on the backstretch that are outside its jurisdiction, including bedbug infestations. “We can only assume that this is a problem that is not in isolation at Saratoga but this is a cultural problem.”
In recent years, NYRA has worked to improve conditions on the backstretch, said Neil Getnick of the NYRA Integrity Council.
“These are not our employees, but as a matter of social responsibility, we take responsibility for them,” he said. “The backstretch workers are the heart of what goes on.”
The NYRA-funded Backstretch Employee Service Team also has worked to improve health care for workers and this year debuted a communications center with telephones and computers for workers to use, said Cate Dolan, BEST president.
“We know that conditions and circumstances in the backstretch are not optimal,” Dolan said.