U.S. spending bill omits visa provision sought by horse industry - WDRB 41 Louisville News

U.S. spending bill omits visa provision sought by horse industry

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – A short-term spending bill introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives failed to include a visa provision that horse racing interest groups said was needed to prevent job losses at racetracks.

At issue was an exemption that would allow foreign workers with recently approved visas to qualify for seasonal work in the United States without counting toward a quota. Thoroughbred trainers are among those who hire the exempt workers.

National and state horsemen’s groups and racetrack industry leaders lobbied Congressional leaders this week, asking them to reinstate the returning-worker exemption that is believed to affect thousands of employees at U.S. racetracks and training facilities.

“This is very disappointing, but not surprising given the current environment in Washington which includes a lame duck session of Congress and the uncertainties associated with the incoming presidential administration,” Alex Waldrop, president and CEO of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, said in a statement. “We will continue to work with our colleagues and allies on Capitol Hill to seek a long term solution to this complex issue.”

The national Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association also has pushed for the exemption. The organization's next steps aren't clear, with much depending on the actions of President-elect Donald J. Trump's administration, CEO Eric Hamelback said in an email.

"Our message, and what we hope is the message of the entire equine industry, will continue to be expressing our support for border security, but our industry needs to have a functioning guest worker program which can meet the demand for highly labor intensive jobs we have, especially in the racing industry," he said.

Hamelback anticipates the next Congress will introduce legislation to address guest worker programs, with his group, the NTRA and the American Horse Council in support.

"Our fear, however, is this may not be an issue that is addressed until we actually see a major shortage of workers," he said.

It's not known precisely how many workers would be affected. National racing groups weren't able to provide data on such jobs; the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission tracks licenses granted to backside workers but doesn't monitor how many have visas, including the temporary-worker exemption.

While not asking about visa recipients, a survey conducted within the past three years found that Hispanics made up 70 percent of workers on the Churchill Downs backside during peak racing season, said John Asher, the track's vice president of racing communications.

A last-minute effort to change the federal spending bill was underway Wednesday afternoon, with Republican Rep. Andy Harris of Maryland asking the House Rules Committee to add the returning-worker exemption to the bill, according to the HBPA. A Harris spokeswoman did not immediately respond to an email seeking more information.

PREVIOUS: Horse racing groups ask Congress to salvage temporary worker rule

In order to prevent a government shutdown, Congress has until Friday to approve the stopgap spending measure.

The federal H-2B visa program allows nonfarm workers to spend 10 months in the U.S. before returning for their home counties for two months. In all, 66,000 visas are available, but people who had been granted visas in recent years are not applied toward the cap.

Without that loophole, racing interest groups argue that their workers must compete with others seeking a limited number of visas.

The returning-worker exemption was stripped from a similar bill approved this fall, but racing officials said the previous action had little impact on trainers who already had hired stable workers for the year. They pushed to reinstate the provision because many trainers plan to make hiring decisions for next year early in 2017.

If passed, the spending bill released Tuesday night would fund federal services and programs until April 28.

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