08/27/2008 12:00AM

Backstretch workers underpaid

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Backstretch workers employed by trainers at New York's largest Thoroughbred racetracks are routinely paid less than minimum wage and are not compensated for overtime, the New York State Labor Department alleged during a press conference Wednesday in Albany.

The workers included hotwalkers, grooms, and night watchmen, according to a Labor Department report based on interviews with 110 backstretch employees and 88 trainers. The report stated that 80 percent of the 110 employees were underpaid, and that 77 of the 88 trainers did not keep accurate payroll records.

The Labor Department report did not indicate that the agency had taken any disciplinary action against the trainers who underpaid employees. Instead, the agency said it would host labor-law seminars at New York tracks in the future and inform trainers about their obligations under the law.

The report said that, on average, hot walkers were underpaid by $71.65 a week. Grooms were underpaid by $82.31 per week. The minimum wage in New York is $7.15 an hour, and the report said that some workers were paid "as little as $5.06 an hour and most did not receive overtime."

A spokesman for the Labor Department did not return phone calls on Wednesday.

Most backstretch workers are paid on a per-week basis at a flat rate, with different rates for grooms and hotwalkers. The workers usually work seven days a week, and sometimes work split shifts in which they have to return to the barn in the afternoon for feeding time after a four- or five-hour morning shift that begins before dawn.

Rick Violette, a trainer who is the president of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, said the report did not reflect a complete understanding of the schedules of backstretch employees and the prevailing industry practice of paying the workers at weekly salaries. He also noted that the Labor Department did not apparently plan to issue any fines. Violette said he met with Labor Department officials on Tuesday, one day prior to the report being issued.

"While I'm sure that there are some workers out here that are underpaid, there are some misunderstandings about who can be paid on an hourly basis and who can be paid on a salary basis," Violette said. "I don't think this is as widespread as the report seems to indicate."

Violette said that the horsemen's association would work with the Labor Department on informing trainers about the requirements of labor law.

"We'll work with them to come up with some best practices," Violette said.

The report noted that the New York Racing Association, which operates Aqueduct, Belmont, and Saratoga, was not a focus of the investigation.