BACKSTRETCH EMPLOYEES

I went out to dinner several weeks ago only to find the chain-owned restaurant had posted a note on its front door that it was temporarily closing at 4:30 p.m. due to lack of staff.  Similarly, the Starbucks in my town is open on a variable schedule because it can’t always find enough employees to operate even the drive-through.  The local McDonald’s has not opened its inside facilities since March of 2020, doing business only through its drive-through.

The United States currently has more job openings than it does people seeking work.  An estimated 9-plus million jobs are going unfilled in spite of employers offering sign-on bonuses and elevated wages. The labor crunch is so severe that some of the nation’s largest hospital systems have dropped Covid-19 vaccination mandates for healthcare employees.

This situation got me thinking about backstretch workers.  These folks put in long hours, sometimes seven days a week, the working conditions and compensation are often not attractive, and they deal with possible injury inflicted by the horses they care for.  With the overall American job market so in favor of employees vis-à-vis employers, backstretch workers have other options.

One of my favorite television programs is America at Work on Fox Cable with Mike Rowe.  The weekly 1-hour show delves into the work of people who literally keep America running.  The programs have, for instance, featured hands-on employees in waste management, fracking, and logging. While white-collar workers in software programming, management, law, medicine, and other such positions provide invaluable services, without the unsung people featured on America at Work, day-to-day life would falter.

The same can be said of backstretch employees and the life of a racetrack. Horse trainers, jockeys, and owners are in the public eye, but the grooms, hot walkers, and exercise riders keep the railroad running. The Sunday morning after Alysheba won the 1988 Kentucky Derby, his trainer, Jack Van Berg, said that he had to clean stalls, evidently the result of his caretaker staff celebrating too much the night before–a short trip for Van Berg from the penthouse to the outhouse.

With the number of job openings in the United States exceeding the number of job seekers, it is likely that trainers are having to compete to keep employees as never before.  Training day rates will have to rise with soaring prices and wage inflation.  Further, it has never been easy to find people who are able and willing to take care of racehorses six or seven days a week.

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