Albany, NY (August 27, 2008) – At a press conference in Albany, State Labor Commissioner M. Patricia Smith today announced that the Labor Department has found widespread violations of minimum wage and overtime laws affecting Saratoga Race Course’s backstretch workers, including the “hot walkers,” grooms and watchmen employed by trainers at Saratoga.
The affected workers are employed by individual trainers who function as independent contractors, typically training horses for multiple thoroughbred owners. While not employed by either the New York Racing Association (NYRA) or the State Racing and Wagering Board, owners and trainers are represented by the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association (NYTHA). The workers provide around-the-clock services for horses at the racetrack. They feed, bathe, groom, rub down, and walk the horses to cool them down after exercise or a race, and also “muck out” or clean their stalls. They work in venues throughout the state, from Saratoga to Yonkers to Belmont, and across the country at racecourses in California, Florida and Kentucky.
“When the lights go out at Saratoga Race Course and the crowds are long gone, backstretch workers are still there – day in, day out – to make sure that every horse is properly cared for,” said Commissioner Smith. “We believe that this investigation into the treatment of backstretch workers highlights conditions not only at Saratoga Race Course, but throughout the industry. As such, our message to trainers who employ backstretch workers across New York state is simple: comply and comply now.”
NYRA officials expressed a similar commitment to collaborate with the Racing and Wagering Board and the Department of Labor to protect the financial welfare of backstretch workers.
“Providing a safe, healthy and humane environment in which to work and live for the backstretch employees and their families is a core principle of the New York Racing Association. NYRA shares Commissioner Smith’s concern that workers who are employed by independent trainers on the backstretch are treated fairly and with dignity, both in respect to their living conditions and their ability to earn a living wage,” said NYRA President and CEO, Charles Hayward.
“NYRA has worked cooperatively with the Department of Labor during the course of this investigation, and NYRA will continue to cooperate with the Department as it works with NYTHA and the Racing and Wagering Board to ensure that the trainers conduct their business operations in accordance with State laws and regulations.”
John D. Sabini, Chairman of the New York State Racing and Wagering Board plans to notify all trainers and owners licensed by the Board of their obligation to comply with State labor laws, and is collaborating with the Labor Department on educational efforts prior to the continuation of the Belmont racing season.
“I want to thank Commissioner Smith for helping to bring these issues to light,” said Chairman John D. Sabini. “This type of behavior by our licensees will not be tolerated and moving forward the Board will review Department of Labor violations as it relates to backstretch workers to determine the suitability of issuing or renewing licenses for trainers.”
Over the past several weeks, in cooperation with NYRA, Labor Department investigators interviewed 110 backstretch workers employed as hot walkers, grooms and watchmen (out of a total of more than 1,200 employed at Saratoga Race Course) and found a number of minimum wage and overtime violations. A total of 80% of the workers interviewed were underpaid, including minimum wage, overtime, and other wage violations. Some workers were paid as little as $5.06 per hour and most did not receive overtime. Nearly three-quarters of the workers received less than the required minimum wage for the hours they worked. Many stated that their wages have remained the same for 10 or 20 years.
The Division of Labor Standards conducted interviews with backstretch workers primarily at stables and at their places of residence. The workers interviewed were randomly selected. Based on conservative estimates by Department of Labor investigators, the average weekly underpayment for hot walkers, who often double as watchmen, was $71.65 per week, while for grooms it totaled $82.31 per week. Investigators estimate that out of 110 workers interviewed, 88 were underpaid and are collectively owed approximately $7,000 in weekly underpayments.
Investigators also interviewed 88 trainers (out of approximately 115 total), who are the employers of backstretch workers, and found that the majority of them (77) were not keeping required time and payroll records. The information the trainers provided about the wages and hours was not significantly different from the information provided by the workers.
Preliminary plans are in place for the Department of Labor to host seminars on labor laws, possibly at a NYRA-operated facility, for all horse trainers doing business in New York State. In addition, the majority of trainers at Saratoga Race Course have been provided with information from the Department of Labor on minimum wage and overtime requirements under the labor law. In the coming months, the department will mail basic labor law information to all licensed trainers in New York State.
Backstretch workers also raised several other serious issues about their working and living conditions at Saratoga Race Course. Workers expressed concerns about the conditions of their housing and about the dangerous conditions under which they travel when they accompany horses being moved from place to place. They often accompany horses in their trailers without access to seatbelts or other safety provisions.
All of these matters have been brought to the attention of NYRA and the State Racing and Wagering Board.
Commissioner Smith continued, “Backstretch workers are truly the unsung heroes of New York’s horse racing industry. This investigation presents us with both a legal and moral opportunity to change an entire culture within this industry for the better.”
New York State’s minimum wage is $7.15 per hour, and employers are required to pay overtime for weekly hours past forty at 1½ times the employee’s regular pay rate. The State Labor Department encourages employers and workers to contact the department about wage and hour issues. Investigators from the Division of Labor Standards will answer any questions regarding compliance with New York’s labor laws. Information is also available on the department’s web site – www.labor.ny.gov; or by phone at 1-800-447-3992.