Members of the Jockeys' Guild will not be having a very funny April Fool's Day. On April 1, the family health insurance policy covering 800 Guild members will expire.
Because of skyrocketing premiums, Jockeys' Guild national manager John Giovanni said there is not enough money in the association's budget to continue making the premium payments.
Giovanni said the decision was made at a Guild executive committee meeting held in Florida on March 6. "We slashed our budget to the bare bone," Giovanni, guild national manager since 1987, said. "It's a very dangerous business. Jockeys take a hell of a beating. Our budget is restricted. We will not be able to afford health insurance for our members."
Giovanni said over 60% of the Guild's budget has been earmarked for health insurance. Members contribute $5 of each mount fee to the organization's budget. Thus riders who have the most mounts pay the most to the Guild each year. For example, Edgar Prado, who had a large number of mounts last year, 1,642 to be exact, would pay the Guild $8,210. "Guys who ride the most subsidize the others," Giovanni said.
Guild president Pat Day said the average member rides about 450 races a year. At $5 apiece, that average jockey would pay dues of $2,250. But Day said the average premium for members last year was just under $5,000. "Do the math," Day said.
The average mount fee at racetracks in North America is currently about $50.
Besides the dues of its members, the Jockeys' Guild receives a large chunk of money each year from racetracks through a contract negotiated by the Thoroughbred Racing Associations of North America. Those funds come not from the TRA, but directly from the racetracks to the Jockeys' Guild. And, though the Guild uses the money to help pay for the health insurance policy, TRA executive vice president Chris Scherf said the contract does not specify the funds are to be used for that purpose.
"We're not responsible for paying the health insurance of independent contractors," Scherf said. "(The jockeys) are not hired by the tracks, they are hired by the horsemen.
"We have always said we are not responsible for (the Guild's) health costs, but in fact, the health costs have been what is driving the Guild side of the negotiations. We've always argued over whether we are paying for a health plan or not."
Scherf said the TRA currently has 43 racetrack members, but most of the racetracks in North America pay money to the Guild.
Day said collection has been difficult from some tracks, though he would not name them. "There are some racetracks that have not been paying," the Hall of Fame rider said. "It's a sizeable amount of money owed to us under the contract."
Racetracks are divided into three classes: A, B, and C. Each racetrack pays the Guild a fee for every starter during a meeting and a fee for every live racing day. In 2000, class A tracks paid $6.88 per starter and $75 per racing day; B tracks paid $4.51 and $65; and C tracks paid $3.30 and $50. The raceday fees remain the same through the end of the contract, Dec. 31, 2002. But the starters fees increase for 2001 and 2002 to: A tracks, $7.57 per starter; B tracks, $4.96; and C tracks, $3.63.
There are 141 racetracks on the current contract, with 35 classified as A tracks, 17 as B, and 89 as C.
In 2000, racetrack contributions to the Guild amounted to about $2 million. By the end of the current contract, which runs through Dec. 31, 2002, that figure should approach $2.3 million.
Giovanni said the Guild's health insurance premiums went up 18% in 1999, another 12% in 2000, and a staggering 43% this year.
"At our meeting last December, the board directed the executive committee to balance the books," Day said. "We trimmed any fat, streamlined as much as we could, but that 43% increase was very surprising to us. We were figuring the increase would be closer to 20%."
Like his fellow members, Day said he will soon be out shopping for health insurance, something he has never had to do. "I've always been a Guild member. I've never had to buy my own insurance. I think this will be a rude awakening for the majority of our membership. They will see they have been provided with insurance for themselves and their families at an extremely reduced rate.
"This was not a decision we made hurriedly. We really struggled with it," Day continued. "But it was the only decision we could make in order for the organization to stay solvent and continue representing the riders."
Day said he prefers to think of the health insurance benefit as being "suspended, not eliminated. We're optimistic that in time we can reinstate the benefit to our members."
Guild members, Giovanni said, will soon be receiving information in the mail on COBRA (Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act) benefits. COBRA is a federal law that provides for continuation of insurance coverage for 18 months.
Giovanni also said the Guild will continue to help its 47 permanently disabled riders and provide life insurance and disability income. He also noted that accident insurance provided by racetracks is totally separate and would not be affected.
Day and Giovanni both said the Guild is aggressively lobbying state legislatures for relief. Currently, only two states, California and Delaware, provide funds to the Guild for health benefits. Giovanni said a bill has passed in Louisiana and others are in the works in New Jersey, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts.
In California, the Guild receives money from uncashed tickets on scratched horses. In Delaware, money is received from slot machine revenue. The Guild began receiving the money from California in 1997 and Delaware in 1998. Over the course of the three-year contract that expires at the end of 2002, the Guild expects to receive $500,000 annually from California and $200,000 annually from Delaware. The money cannot be applied to health insurance coverage outside the two states.