Gambling on our future? Wanted: Thousands of casino workers for low-wage jobs - Saturday 12th of March 2005

Ask for the hot fudge at the Mohegan Sun Casino's sundae bar and the attendant, standing mere inches from the fudge, shrugs uncomprehendingly.

    It's a scene repeated all over the casino, which demonstrates how difficult it is to fill more than 20,000 low-paying service jobs.

    Southeast Connecticut is home to two of the biggest casinos in the world, each employing about 10,000. Both the Mohegan Sun, owned by the Mohegan Tribe, and Foxwoods, owned by the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe, recruit employees locally. To fill the gaps, they also advertise in New York City's Chinatown and abroad. As a result, many workers are immigrants and speak little or no English. The majority of immigrant workers are Chinese.

    The influx of non-English speakers has strained area schools, and the crush of workers has created a crisis of affordable housing.

    Some Clark County residents worry that the Cowlitz Tribe's proposed casino resort would cause the same problems. It may not be easy to find thousands of employees, but tribal and employment experts don't foresee the same level of problems because Southwest Washington has a larger population base and more unemployment.

    "We certainly hope to be able to fill our positions through the local community," Cowlitz spokesman David Barnett said. "We have a bigger labor pool with which to draw from and we're going to be significantly smaller than both of those," he said of Connecticut's two casinos, which draw gamblers from New York a*d other large Northeastern cities.

    The Mohegan Tribe is helping finance the Cowlitz casino; if it is built, the Mohegans would also manage the operation. The casino hinges on the federal government designating the site near La Center as the Cowlitz's tribal reservation. The government's decision is expected in about a year.

    A Cowlitz casino in Clark County would create 3,000 to 5,000 jobs. It is rare for that many low-wage jobs to become available at once, said Scott Bailey, regional economist with the state Department of Employment Security.

    "I think it would be challenging" to hire that many people, he said. "I think 5,000 is a lot. That's a big number."

    The Mohegan Tribe generates a pool of skilled workers with its own school. It offers a training program for dealers, slot machine mechanics and other employees. The tribe hires people, then sends them to free training. The Cowlitz Tribe has a tentative partnership with Clark College to train dealers in a similar way. Details of the plan will be worked out if the Cowlitz win federal approval to build and operate a casino resort.

    In Washington last year, the median wage for gaming dealers was $7.38 an hour, pennies over the state minimum wage of $7.35. Dealers also earn money through tips, however. Hotel maids and housekeeping employees earned a median wage of $8.56.

    Because tribes are sovereign, they aren't required to abide by state law and could pay the federal minimum wage of $5.15 per hour. Barnett said wages at a Cowlitz casino would be competitive. "We want the best and the brightest," he said. The tribe would pay at least state minimum wage, Barnett said.

    Starting pay for dealers at the Mohegan Sun is federal minimum wage, but casino spokesman Saverio Mancini said with tips, dealer pay averages $14 an hour. Housekeeping staff start at $8.83 per hour.

    The Cowlitz Tribe has promised to pay more, but will it be enough to attract thousands of workers? In Clark County, fewer workers are willing to take jobs at minimum wage, Bailey said. "There's times we've seen an effective minimum wage. The market minimum wage is higher than the real minimum wage."

    About 7,000 jobs in the county pay less than $8 an hour. "What we've seen in the last couple years is a steady decrease in jobs at that wage level," Bailey said.

    Clark County's February unemployment rate was 7.4 percent, which translates to 14,000 unemployed people, Bailey said. Cowlitz County has an unemployment rate of 8.5 percent, or 3,700 people. But that doesn't mean those people would flock to casino jobs.

    "A fair number of unemployed workers here and in Cowlitz County have more skills and education," Bailey said. "They're not going to go after a minimum-wage job."

    The same situation is true in Connecticut. That's partly why the Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods must rely on recent immigrants.

    Southeastern Connecticut was once home to thousands of defense industry jobs that paid well and employed an educated work force. In the 1990s, the federal Department of Defense was spending $10,000 per capita in southeast Connecticut. One employer was United Nuclear, which produced parts for nuclear submarines, and had a plant where the Mohegan Sun now stands.

    When the Cold War ended, the area was projecting a 20 percent unemployment rate as a result of the defense industry downturn, said John Markowicz, executive director of the nonprofit economic development agency, the Southeast Connecticut Enterprise Region.

    Then Foxwoods was built in 1992, and the Mohegan Sun in 1996.

    Instead of an unemployment rate skyrocketing to 20 percent, Connecticut has a rate of 5 percent, a half-point below the national rate .

    But Markowicz doesn't believe that laid-off defense industry workers are now dealing cards. It is more likely that those workers moved away to obtain jobs similar to those they lost.

    The population of the area has remained the same, but the number of jobs has increased. As a result, "we have more jobs than we have people," he said. Both casinos hold regular job fairs to attract employees.

    As a result, commute times have increased because workers can't find homes nearby, Markowicz said. There are 169 cities and towns in Connecticut, and the Mohegan Sun has employees who live in 110, according to the Mohegan Tribe's chairman, Mark Brown. A study done by the economic development agency determined that the area needs 4,000 to 5,000 new rental housing units. The report calls on local governments to increase areas zoned for apartments and to make it easier for developers to build rental housing.

    Jobs at the casinos come with a generous benefits package. Above the employee parking garage, the Mohegan Tribe has a medical clinic, pharmacy and training center just for employees. The tribe offers health care coverage with no premiums. Prescriptions are $20 in outside pharmacies, and generic drugs are free at the pharmacy on the reservation. A fitness center in the building charges $15 a month and towel service is free.

    These perks are great for workers, but bad for owners of small, family-owned restaurants who can't compete. "They lost their chefs, their waitresses and those sorts of people. They went to the casino," said Nick Mullane, first selectman of North Stonington, which is near Foxwoods Casino.

    Naturally, benefits would make the Cowlitz casino jobs more competitive, said Bailey, Washington's regional economist. "If they are offering a decent health care plan, that would make it extremely attractive. There's a lot of families in our area who would have to look seriously at that."

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