Visa Laws Could Tighten For Migrant Backside Workers

by Devin Katayama on May 4, 2012

It’s often the trainer, the horse owner, then the jockey that are celebrated after a Triple Crown race; but behind the glitz and glamour, preparing the horse is often a demanding 365 day a year process.

“People who is out of the track, don’t know what is behind the race,” says Arturo Espinosa who’s visiting Churchill Downs’ Backside Learning Center, which offers education and life skills services to backside workers including grooms, hot-walkers and exercise riders.

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Industry professionals estimate no less than 70 percent of the backside is composed of foreign migrant workers. But a potential change to federal visa laws will make the process of hiring workers outside the country more arduous and expensive for trainers. The changes encourage giving American workers first crack at employment, but these are jobs many American’s won’t take.

“They’re basically forcing the U.S. employer to hire Americans,” says Julio Rubio, a liaison for the national Horseman Benevolent and Protective Association.

HBPA members are owners and trainers but the organization also oversees certain issues affecting backside workers.

“We do above and beyond to try and hire Americans,” says Rubio.

But, if approved, the U.S. Department of Labor’s new regulations will ask for more. The H-2B visa laws increase the minimum number of weekly working hours from 30 to 35, but shorten the maximum number of months that define temporary employment from ten to nine. Further, trainers will have to spend more time trying to prove why foreign employees are needed.

A federal judge in the Northern District of Florida issued a nationwide preliminary injunction last month barring the DOL from implementing the changes.

But while controls outside track gates could be tightening, inside it’s a little looser.

“It’s like a microcosm of society,” says Jennifer Hoert, director of the Backside Learning Center. “If you see violence in society, we see violence on the backside. If you see people that have gambling, drug, alcohol additions out in society, they’re back here too,” she said.

Many people call the backside its own community. As such, it’s subject to need what all communities have: social services, recreational activities and healthcare. But many say the industry is too fragmented to offer a consistent level of service.

Non-profits in each state usually pick up the tabs for these services because the racing industry is not nationally regulated. Organizations in states like Kentucky and New York often support a greater variety of programs because keeping the backside healthy supports the industry.

Kentucky, New York and California all donate un-cashed betting tickets to associations or organizations that go back to supporting various programs for horsemen. The Kentucky Racing Health and Welfare Fund received over $2 million this operating year.

But no state can fully protect backside workers from the side effects of the job.
“You be lonely on the backside and you’re by yourself,” says exercise rider Franklin Castillo from Panama.

Castillo acknowledges what many say is a result of being transient, as many workers follow the racing circuit throughout the year.

“You no got your wife, or your girlfriend…you got nobody, you is lonesome,” he says.
Most foreign-born workers send money back home, he says, so every service provided helps.

The DOL is trying to draw more American workers to the backside, giving them their shot at the American dream, but for Arturo Espinosa that dream is in another country.

Espinosa, who isn’t married, says he wants to one day make it back to Mexico City to be with his parents, but he first wants to win one big race. So each morning he wakes before its light to prepare to wash, scrub and take care of the horses.

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