Voss: Equine Caretakers Shouldn’t Need A Safety Net; We Need To Understand Why They’re Falling Through The Cracks

It’s been a couple of weeks since this year’s edition of the Jockey Club Round Table, but I still find myself thinking back to one of the shorter presentations. My colleagues and I focused most of our coverage on the discussions of the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority and a presentation on whip rules, but the one I keep thinking about was given by Shannon Kelly.

Kelly is the executive director of The Jockey Club Safety Net Foundation. I’ve written about the organization and its work before, and usually hear about it in the context of assisting a backstretch worker or jockey in the face of a big, unexpected crisis, usually a medical issue or injury.

(You can read our previous reporting on the Safety Net Foundation here.)

It says something disturbing about the state of healthcare in this country that I never thought it odd that the Safety Net may be needed to help someone combat sudden, enormous medical bills. (But that’s a topic for a different website, and a different writer.) What did surprise me though, was Kelly’s report that the Foundation has been called upon for much more basic needs.

“Quite regularly we receive calls for help with filling a food pantry for the backstretch workers,” said Kelly at the Round Table. “This assistance does not come in form of a few cans of soup. We are allocating tens of thousands of dollars for food pantries. What does that tell us? That tells us that our workforce on our own backstretches are unable to satisfy this basic human need. The people who feed our precious equine athletes cannot feed themselves.”

Then there was the case of the groom who could not spare the $42 it would cost her to get fingerprinted for a license renewal. Another groom had open heart surgery and needed help because he did not have a “safe and clean place to live” while he recovered, to the point his doctor was concerned that upon leaving the hospital he would incur infection.

I’ve heard about different organizations providing food baskets around holidays, and probably vaguely assumed this was an extension of the same tradition carried on by benevolent employers decades ago, born more of seasonal spirit than actual need. More recently though I’ve become aware of other food bank efforts for farm workers in addition to those on the backstretch, based in everyday needs.

Are there really workers in our industry being paid so poorly they can’t afford to feed themselves?

Kelly says it’s unclear whether the issue is that pay is inadequate, but it’s clear that people do need help.

Shannon Kelly, Executive Director, The Jockey Club Safety net Foundation speaks during the Seventieth Annual Round Table Conference on Matters Pertaining to Racing at the Saratoga City Center Sunday Aug. 14, 2022 in Saratoga Springs N.Y. Photo Credit: The Jockey Club

The need definitely grew during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, but she says there are basic limitations many backstretch workers face that were not tied to that event. Those who live in dormitories don’t have access to a kitchen where they could cook fresh food, and hot plates aren’t permitted in multi-unit housing. Many also do not have cars that would allow them to get off-site for a grocery run (or for medical care, pharmaceuticals, etc.), even if they did have somewhere to cook. That means, if you live at the track, you’re reliant on the track kitchen and while the food there is cheaper than many restaurants outside the track, it’s still more expensive than eating in.

Workers who live off-site do so with the trade-off of having to pay rent, which many in the dorms do not, and that may be putting a financial squeeze on them.

Of course, Kelly said, many immigrant workers are sending a chunk of their income home. And while it’s easy to think that any lack of funds on their part is optional, she reminded me that many of them may be the only breadwinner in their families, just as they would be if they worked closer to home. The financial demand on them is no less just because they’re working away from home; if anything, it’s probably greater.

My job gives me some insight into how I think the general public looks at different issues in horse racing and I have to tell you, the notion that the people who care for million-dollar animals must rely on a food bank would not go over well if it entered the mainstream consciousness. Remember the outrage that followed a 2018 New York Times story criticizing living conditions at Belmont Park? Racing is in a less tenable position with the public now than it was then, given the animal welfare concerns we’ve battled in the years since. And while the distaste of the public for what they may see as exploitation of animals has grown and evolved rapidly in the past few years, the distaste for exploiting vulnerable workers has been around a lot longer and has deeper roots.

Kelly was careful to tell me she didn’t want to point fingers. Many owners and trainers do pay staff very well (increasingly so, now that it’s getting harder to find workers) and are happy to help out when they know an employee is struggling. NYRA in particular has been working on a project to overhaul dorms on its campuses since 2013 when John Hendrickson expressed concerns about them.

And, more importantly, we don’t know where to point those fingers. The most helpful thing the industry can do for its backstretch workers now, Kelly believes, is to organize a national survey to learn what workers are paid, and what their costs are. We don’t know what the needs are for workers in different parts of the country; we don’t know what they’re paid, on average; we don’t know where their financial stresses come from. This is further complicated by the fact that many are afraid to speak up, not wanting to be seen as causing trouble for their employers.

Until we know more about the issue, the Safety Net will be there, as it has been since 1943, ready to catch anyone who require its help. If we want the sport to thrive though, we need to find ways to reduce the number of people who need it.

The post Voss: Equine Caretakers Shouldn’t Need A Safety Net; We Need To Understand Why They’re Falling Through The Cracks appeared first on Horse Racing News | Paulick Report.

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