Union Questions Clerk Reductions at Santa Anita

A decision to reduce the number of pari-mutuel clerks at Santa Anita racetrack has angered union leaders, who say the cutback is having a ripple effect on the industry's labor work force in Southern California.

For the first time in more than a decade, there are less than 100 clerks taking bets at Santa Anita during the week. There are somewhere between 85-90 clerks during the week, about a 19 percent drop from last year's staffing figures, according to Ron Liccardo, president of the Service Employees International Union Local 280, which represents nearly 2,000 pari-mutuel workers statewide. On the weekends, which usually are more busy, there are about 200 clerks manning betting windows.

The staff restructuring has been disconcerting to labor leaders like Liccardo.

"With all of these races being beamed on-track, the amount of work a clerk has to do has increased," he said. "There is more work to be done but less people to do it."

Track officials have defended their actions and adjusted staffing levels accordingly to the dwindling on-track crowds. Santa Anita president Jack Liebau said the daily average of on-track attendance has dropped about 10 percent this meet to-date compared to last year's numbers.

"We are experiencing staff reductions because we have less people to serve," Liebau said. "We can't staff this place the way it was three years ago. We have to staff it based on the figures for today."

The number of clerks can fluctuate from week-to-week and the union is notified about how many employees are needed. The cutbacks, however, have had a domino effect on the industry's unionized work force.

Liccardo said the labor system is based on seniority. Any veteran employee who is left without a job for the day can replace a less-experienced worker at an off-track facility such as satellite wagering hub.

"Then that person is out of a job for a day," Liccardo said. "Seniority is golden in our business."

Union leaders said clerks have been showing up to the track only to find they don't have a job and must travel anywhere from 30 to 100 miles to bump a lower-ranking employee.

Another factor contributing to the decrease in the number of on-track clerks has been the introduction of self-automated machines (SAMs) that allow customers to punch in their own bet. Many tracks around the nation use the machines. Some bettors prefer the machines because they provide convenience, shorter lines and confidentiality.

In Northern California, there are only 25 clerks handling wagers at Golden Gate Fields, which has the highest rate of SAMs usage in the nation, according to Liebau. About 68 percent of the track's customers use the machines rather than a clerk to place a bet. At Santa Anita, that figure is about 38 percent, Liebau added.

"That's why we need as many mutuel clerks we can get at Santa Anita," he said. "We don't want to shut people out. That notion is ridiculous."

Liccardo pointed out that there were 115 clerks on weekdays at Hollywood last summer, much more than the current levels at Santa Anita. He believes Santa Anita management is trying to trim corners and expects further staffing reductions in the future.

"We don't want to become the Bay Meadows or the Golden Gate Fields of the south," Liccardo said. "I think a lot of people prefer going up to the window and placing a bet with a clerk. That's an experience you can't get from a machine."

Liebau has no plans to add any more machines and would only say this about future employment changes:

"If attendance continues to decline we will staff accordingly," he said. "Hopefully, we will be adding more mutuel clerks because that means attendance is going up.