Today's Job Market
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Ray Paulick
Editor-in-Chief
This item of interest from the Feb. 25 issue of USA Today: a horse racing groom has the worst job in sports.

That revelation, the results of a nonscientific survey among staff of USA Today's sports section, came at the end of an entertaining 10-day series on undesirable jobs in sports. The others on the list, from No. 2 to 10, respectively, were: boxing sparring partner; rodeo bullfighter; urine-sample collector; Iditarod sled dog; baseball clubhouse attendant; general manager of the New York Yankees; special teams player in the National Football League; bicycle team soigneur; and team mascot.

Obviously, the newspaper series was as much tongue in cheek as serious analysis. But its selection of groom as the worst job in sports rings true on at least one front: it's a difficult position to fill with American workers.

USA Today focused on Paul Perry, a 53-year-old African-American who has groomed horses for 32 years and currently is employed by Eclipse Award-winning trainer Todd Pletcher. But Perry is not the prototype groom of the modern era, as anyone who has visited a racetrack stable area or training center in the last decade knows. The majority of these jobs are filled by foreign workers because it is becoming increasingly difficult to find Americans willing or able to do the work.

But the well for foreign workers--at least those with legal status--is running dry, too. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which issues special H-2B work permits for many foreign workers, can only approve 66,000 such visas each year. Last year that threshold was reached in March. This year, the USCIS hit its cap of 66,000 visas on Jan. 3, meaning trainers or owners in some racing jurisdictions may find it impossible to fill their employment needs while staying on the right side of the law.

The H-2B visa is for semi-skilled, nonagricultural workers who come to the U.S. on a seasonal or intermittent basis. They are similar to the H-2A visas approved for agricultural workers who fill jobs at numerous horse farms, a key difference being there is no cap on the number of H-2A visas the USCIS may issue. There has been increased scrutiny on all foreign workers since the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001.

Jay Hickey, president of the American Horse Council, said federal reform will be needed eventually to address issues for the immigration process of agricultural workers. But he said it is crucial to numerous industries that the H-2B visa problem be given top priority by Congress right now.

"This will be an annual problem until it is finally fixed by Congress," said Hickey. "While some of our semi-skilled alien workers received their H-2B visas this year, others did not, and more may not receive them next year. This cap forces industries to play musical chairs with the H-2B visa process. Each year some sector will be without a chair until the cap is raised or eliminated."

Several bills have been introduced to deal with the issue. The American Horse Council and several other affected industries support the "Save Our Small and Seasonal Businesses Act." The bill was introduced in the Senate (S. 352) by Democrat Barbara Mikulski of Maryland and in the House of Representatives (H.R. 793) by Republican Wayne Gilchrest, also of Maryland. The bills would exempt returning seasonal workers from the 66,000 cap in 2005 and 2006 and also require the USCIS to resume process of H-2B visas immediately upon passage.

As with any legislation, whether it be federal, state, or local, it is extremely important that senators and representatives be contacted. The American Horse Council Web site has additional information on the legislation along with some tips on how to best contact your elected representatives.

One thing seems certain: being named the worst job in sports will not make the position of horse racing groom more appealing to many Americans.

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