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.

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