Oklahoma Labor Commissioner Lloyd Fields told the Oklahoma Horse Racing Commission recently the state’s four racetracks face a potential problem of horse trainers who do not carry workers’ compensation insurance for their employees.
Fields said the state Labor Department is investigating the issue.
He said that if a person who works on the backside of a track – such as an exercise rider, hotwalker or groom – is injured, and the trainer for whom they work doesn’t have workers’ comp insurance or doesn’t claim them as an employee, the injured person could theoretically look to racetracks to pay their medical costs.
Some commission members seemed skeptical of Fields’ assessment, but agreed the issue should be examined.
Constantin Rieger, the commission’s executive director, said the workers’ comp issue – which has been the subject of much debate within the racing industry in recent years – is one the commission planned to “aggressively” address in the coming months as it grants licenses for 2008.
He said one thing that could be done is to more closely monitor license applications made by trainers to ensure they have the proper insurance.
Complicating the issue, he said, is the fact that many backside workers perform services for more than one trainer, making them independent contractors.
Rieger said the state now does not require trainers to carry workers’ comp insurance if they state on their license applications that they have no employees. That rule could be reviewed, he said.
Senior Assistant Attorney General Neal Leader, the commission’s general counsel, said the commission has faced lawsuits in the past from jockeys who have been injured, with the jockeys – who are considered to be independent contractors – claiming they were employed by the commission.
“You may win on defense,” Leader said. “But it costs you money to defend.”
Fields’ appearance during a regularly scheduled commission meeting came after he made a surprise visit to Remington Park’s backside area last month to follow up on a complaint from a trainer who said that while he had the proper workers’ comp insurance, other trainers did not.
Fields said he wanted to put to rest rumors that had surfaced about the intentions of the Labor Department concerning the issue.
“We’re just trying to do a job, no different than what you do,” Fields told commissioners.
“Nobody is on a radar screen. We’re not trying to rat anybody out,” he said. “I want to promote business in Oklahoma.”
Rieger acknowledged that he had not been pleased with Fields’ visit to Remington Park, but said he has “no argument with the Department of Labor. They’re just doing their jobs, also.
“We’re both moving in the same direction. We just have a little different mission.”
Fields said the Labor Department has learned during its investigation that some trainers have workers’ comp insurance in other states that is not applicable to their operations in Oklahoma.
“That is something you don’t want to learn after an accident happens,” he said.
Rieger said each of the state’s four racetracks – Remington Park in Oklahoma City, Blue Ribbon Downs in Sallisaw, Fair Meadows in Tulsa and Will Rogers Downs in Claremore – have insurance policies that cover injured jockeys. He said he thought the policies were for $500,000, although Remington Park general manager Scott Wells said his track has increased its coverage to $1 million.
Those policies don’t cover backside workers, however.
“We want all our vendors, trainers and everyone to be fully compliant with the workers’ comp laws,” Wells said. “It’s in the best interests of everyone.”
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