Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Terrorists on the Backstretch?

Six New York-based trainers have sued the Department of Homeland Security over its refusal to grant seasonal work visas to backstretch workers. The lawsuit, filed October 7th in Federal Court in Brooklyn, in the court district that includes Belmont and Aqueduct race tracks, claims that the government's refusal to renew the temporary visas means that it will rapidly become impossible for trainers to find enough workers to take care of the horses currently in their barns, much less care for any new arrivals.

The story is mis-reported here in the Daily News. Contrary to what the News says, the lawsuit was not filed by the NY Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association (disclosure: I'm a member of the NYTHA Board of Directors), but rather by six individual trainers. The lead plaintiff is Kiaran McLaughlin, and the other five who've joined in the lawsuit are Shug McGaughey, Bill Mott, Mike Hushion, John Kimmel and Bruce Brown (more disclosure: Bruce trains horses for my partnership group, Castle Village Farm). But NYTHA has discussed the issue and is certainly supporting the trainers' position.

For years, hot walkers and grooms from Mexico and other Latin American countries have been routinely approved for so-called H-2B visas. Those visas permit foreign workers to be employed in the US for temporary periods (usually a year or less, but sometimes as long as three years) if (1) the prospective employer can show that there are no US workers able and willing to do the work, and (2) the work is temporary in nature, which includes seasonal work, a one-time or intermittent need for extra workers, or a peak-load need for a defined period.

Nothwithstanding that racetrack work has become virtually year-round, Latino backstretch help has, until the last year, continued to be employed under these temporary visas. Most workers regularly went home to Mexico or elsewhere, reapplied for a new visa, and then came back to the track again.

But recently, la migra, aka the Immigration and Customs Enforcement division of the Department of Homeland Security, has decided that backstretch workers are not so temporary after all, and are therefore ineligible for the "temporary" H-2B visas. When visa approvals slowed down last year, trainers initially thought that it was just a case of bureaucratic ineptitude, possibly with a bit of terrorism phobia mixed in. But apparently the new government position represents a permanent policy shift. And, with no other readily available option for securing help, the trainers felt they had no option but to go to court.

Why won't a few of the millions of unemployed US citizens and legal residents take the jobs at the track? The pay is a bit above minimum wage, starting at around $300 a week. Not much, but then, as long as you don't have a family with you, you can get free housing in the run-down dorms on the backstretch. (Any day now, once the slot machine money starts rolling in, NYRA will build clean, modern high-rise dorms at Belmont and Saratoga, along the lines that Frank Stronach has built at Gulfstream and Palm Meadows. Meanwhile, even in the New York real estate market, the backstretch dorms aren't exactly luxury apartments.) And, in New York, anyway, you get free medical care, through the BEST Backstretch charity organization (yet more disclosure, I'm also a Director of BEST).

Of course, you have to get up around 4 am or so and be at the barn by 4:30. This is not fun in mid-February, in the cold and the dark. And, if your trainer is well-organized, you might get one day off a week; in return, you sometimes work late on a race day.

And, most important, you have to know what you're doing around a horse. Trainers don't, in general, make enough money to bear the cost of training neophytes. They want workers who know not to stand on the off side of a horse, who know how to pick hooves, put bandages on and tack up the horse. They want hot walkers who can hold onto the shank and keep a 1,200-pound animal under control, and then remember to rake the shedrow so the barn will impress the owners. A lot of it is dull, repetitive work, and there's not much of a career path; few grooms and hotwalkers move on to be assistant trainers or trainers in their own right.

So, more and more, trainers at most US tracks have come to depend on a steady flow of Mexican and other Latino workers, many of whom have grown up with horses, know what they're doing, and will work for long hours and low pay to improve the lot of their families back home. With the change in position by la migra, that employment pipeline is being closed, and the future of racing in New York, which appeared bright for the last few days after the announcement that the Aqueduct racino would open within weeks, is once more under a cloud.

I don't know nearly enough immigration law to have an opinion on the trainers' likelihood of success in the lawsuit, but it does seem to me a tough sell. The track jobs need year-round workers, but if US residents can't or won't do the work, who will? And trainers and horse owners, many of whom are losing money already, just aren't in a position to provide a drastic wage increase.

More on the economics of training and owning in upcoming posts.


Brock Sheridan said...

Excellent that you are addressing this immigration issue as it relates to horse racing Steve.

This is a labor issue that effects nearly every track in the U.S. from tiny Santa Cruz County Fair in Southern Arizona (where Bob Baffert cut his teeth) to Saratoga in upstate New York.

rike101 said...

I think your title is misleading. I don't believe anyone considers a backstretch worker to be a potential terrorist. It's all about following the immigration laws in this country. Just ebcause enforcement was lax in the past, doesn't mean it has to continue that way. Personally, I'd be willing to pay an extra $1 for a head of lettuce if an American citizen was picking it. Likewise, the trainers may need to rethink what they pay the backstretch workers. Lots of political solutions, ie work for welfare, etc., to find the potential employee pool, but until that happens, I guess the trainers have a problem, and they need to deal with it. $300 a week?? C'mon.....That must be why the litigating trainers are always dressed so well....

Temple Blog said...


If a trainer can't make on $90 a day and 10 percent than maybe it's time to stop betting horses all day on his commissions and go to work in a deli, or take an office job. Or open a pizza parlor like the rest of us.

Yes, a mook trainer with two or three worthless police horses aren't going to be much better off than a top groom who takes in $500 a week plus tokes.

But most guys in NYC are not training two or three worthless horses. Many of them make thousands a week. When I say "many" I mean 20. Twenty trainers and twenty jocks, or less, earn 80 percent of all the overnight at ANY track. Always have, always will.

If a "trainer" doesn't have time to show a guy how to hot walk a horse, he is either a degenerate gambler or he actually has 50-100 head and has the proper second trainer to show somebody how to clean a stall.

There's not a single thing you've written here that isn't partisan to your personal position. Sorry, sir.

Jess said...

I'm a little late in catching up on the blogs here but still feel that the comments here warrant a response.
First of all, wow, folks have some really off-base & incorrect assumptions about trainers/training. For starters, grooms get paid closer to $500 or $600/week and hot walkers make less. To those who think a trainer should just pay more for help...well, as Steve said, it's not that simple. Trainers do train and educate new staff but working with fit racehorses is a very dangerous job--one that requires experience, knowledge and good sense. Most people in the US today do NOT grow up with horses or livestock and it could take the average Joe off the street years to learn to be a safe & competent groom and that's it they wanted to..most don't. The job is, like it or not, a 7-day-a-week physical, dirty and potentially dangerous one and is not for everyone. Grooms need to be experienced as they spent more time with the horses than the riders, trainers or hotwalkers and have to know when a charge is feeling off, has an injury, need more attention or sometimes less pestering. They need to know if their horses are eating right and on and on. Not to mention that in NY trainers pay some of the country's most outrageous workers comp prices as is...imagine if their entire staff was untrained. Inexperienced workers can increase the hazards,not only for themselves, but for the horses and everyone else working in the barn as well. Good experienced help is HARD TO FIND in every horse discipline but benefits every aspect of an operation.
As for the $90/day, Most trainers spend the entirety of this day rate to cover feed, hay, bedding, grooms, riders, hotwalkers, barn supplies, insurance etc. They make a small amount when a horse wins and sometimes more on sales. Most trainers, even those with decent horses, still struggle daily and do the job because they love it.

It is a business with no safety nets and little predictability...Even the trainers of big operations that are doing well one day can lose one or two big owners and struggle to pay the feed bill the next.
To Temple Blog--assuming they bet all their money away or that $90 covers anything more than basic horse care is uninformed and your objection to the partisan nature of this blog...well, it's a blog, not journalism. It's one person's thoughts, observations and perspective on the racing industry.

L.J. D'Arrigo said...

As an Immigration Attorney specializing in H-2B visa for the racing industry, I see the frustration first hand every day. The issue that trainers are faced with stems from a new interpretation and application of the term "temporary/seasonal" which is a requiring for the H-2B visa program. Most trainers have stables in NY and in FL. In prior years, these trainers were able to obtain H-2B visas for each of their locations since they have opposite seasons in NY and FL. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration would view each stable as a having a separate temporary need. For the first time last year and without warning, USCIS started to deny H-2B applications by determining that the employer had a year round need without regard to the separate locations. I'm now advising my clients to separately incorporate their stables in NY and FL so that they are legally separate entities with different FEIN numbers. This is actually working. And contrary to what some may think, many of these workers are paid extremely well. In fact, in order to participate in the H-2B program, employers must may the workers a "prevailing wage" as determined by the government. These required wages are actually higher than the state and federal minimum wages. It is unfortunate that U.S. workers are not interested in performing this type of labor...U.S. workers simply choose not to shovel horse crap in 90 degree heat for 10-12 hours a day.
L.J. D'Arrigo, Esw.