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Life Grim for State's Racetrack Workers

SUNDAY REPORT

Decrepit housing and lack of overtime pay are common for grooms and other 'backstretch' employees. Industry long ago won exemptions from some labor standards.

April 23, 2000|JOE MOZINGO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Behind the grandstands and opulent turf clubs, workers who take care of horses at California's racetracks inhabit a dusty, isolated world where normal labor and living standards don't apply.

They often work every day of the week without overtime. Most live in small equipment rooms in the stables, with plywood walls, bare concrete floors and no running water.

In Pomona, they sleep and cook on county property under Fire Department signs warning: "Use as Living Quarters and Cooking Prohibited." At Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, they use filthy communal restrooms infested with flies and deemed unsanitary by the health department.

The stable areas at California's six racetracks and nine fairgrounds lack some of the most basic employee protections for approximately 4,000 workers, records and interviews show.

This situation is no accident. The horse-racing industry has long enjoyed exemptions from labor and living regulations that apply to other California workers, including farm workers.

For the last 25 years, horse racing has been exempt from state employee housing standards, making it the only industry whose living quarters can't be inspected or regulated by state housing officials. Horsemen also are effectively excused from paying overtime. They say they need that exclusion to accommodate the unique requirements and working conditions of the stable area, called the backstretch.

While many of them acknowledge that the workers are underpaid, they say wages are low because of razor-thin profit margins and growing competition from Indian casinos, card clubs and the state lottery.

Despite the pinch, the horsemen point to improvements for their work force. Two years ago, the owners of the Bay Meadows Racetrack in San Mateo built a new 53-room dormitory for the backstretch. And the new owner of Santa Anita recently renovated recreational facilities for on-site employees. There are also a small pension fund and two free medical clinics, one in Northern California and one at Santa Anita.

"Most of our people are quite socially conscious," said former state Atty. Gen. John Van de Kamp, a horse owner and president of the California Thoroughbred Owners Assn.

But a review of government documents, interviews with more than 150 officials and employees, and visits to the backstretches of eight horse-racing venues have found neglect and Third World conditions. Among the findings:

* State officials discovered last month that the industry's 13-year-old overtime exclusion may be invalid under federal law, leaving the industry liable to pay a potential fortune in back wages to its lowliest workers. According to Andy Barron, executive director of the state Industrial Welfare Commission: "The ramifications are huge."

* The state Labor Commission hasn't investigated the stables for more than a decade to see if minimum wages are being paid. The California Horse Racing Board, whose five members are appointed by the governor, licenses all parties in the sport, but its contact with the stable employees usually consists of fining them for unruly behavior.

* Local health officials said they were unaware that humans were living in the stables. After being contacted by The Times, Los Angeles County authorities initiated inspections, ordered dozens of workers moved out of the Pomona Fairplex within the next two weeks and declared most of the 600 converted rooms at Santa Anita unfit for humans, ordering that they be fixed up by the end of May.

Robert Tourtelot, a prominent Los Angeles defense attorney and chairman of the California Horse Racing Board, said he was unaware of the inspections.

"If somebody brought to my attention deplorable conditions, I would be concerned," said Tourtelot, adding that he'd need a formal complaint before he would act.

George Nicholaw, general manager of KNX-AM radio and former board chairman, said no one has alerted the agency to problems in the stables. "All I can say is that I have some trust in people treating other people well . . . I find it hard to believe that an employee would work for an employer who would not treat them well," he said.

'The Bathrooms Are Unsanitary'

Los Angeles County officials, meanwhile, said they don't bear responsibility for the conditions at Fairplex, which is leased to a private operator. "The nature of the lease that we have with the fair is that they are in charge," said Sharon Yonashiro, assistant administrative officer in charge of the county's real estate.

At Santa Anita, where the track and stands recently underwent a $45-million renovation, the backstretch remains a pueblo of more than 1,000 people, with goats and flies, dirt roads and characters that could come from a John Steinbeck novel--toothless old hands, hard-drinking drifters and diligent family men far from their home soil.

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