Casino workers ready to fold em - Tuesday 7th of August 2007

Twenty years of Shelly Lambies working life has been at the Emerald Casino.

Two decades ago, the then mother of young kids left the restaurant business to become a dealer at the Saskatoon casino, operated by Prairieland Park.

After years of uncertainty, Lambie said she was "one of the biggest advocates" of a deal between Prairieland and the Whitecap Dakota First Nation to close the Emerald and open up the provinces largest casino 30 kilometres south of the city.

"I think initially we were all quite thrilled, because (it is) something big and beautiful and worth all the money that it was worth," she said.

On Saturday at midnight, the Emerald will close its doors forever and about 165 workers will lose their jobs.

In a deal imposed by the provincial government on Prairieland and the Saskatchewan Indian Gaming Authority (SIGA), which operates the provinces aboriginal-run casinos, SIGA must pay $2.6 million to Prairieland for 30 years to replace the revenue Prairieland will lose by closing Emerald.

The deal also required SIGA offer a job to anyone working at the Emerald who was interested in working at the new Dakota Dunes casino, which opens on Aug. 10 at 9 a.m. But according to SIGA, only 31 of 175 Emerald workers applied for jobs at Dakota Dunes.

Pat Cook, vice-president of corporate affairs, said all were offered employment and 28 accepted. Emerald casino manager Jim MacGowan said he knows of just 26 workers taking jobs at Dakota Dunes.

Lambie, a pit manager who supervises the table games at Emerald, applied for a similar post at Dakota Dunes, but didnt get the job.

"It was going to be a great career change -- which wasnt to be," she said.

She could have worked at Dakota in a job lower down the hierarchy, but chose not to.

"It wouldnt make sense to lose your severance and start off at such a substantial cut in pay," she said.

Emerald is paying three weeks of severance pay for each year of service to employees who do not move on to Dakota Dunes. Many workers were left in a quandary deciding between a healthy severance package and the stability of a new job, says Michele Kristoff, who supervises the craps table at Emerald.

Although Kristoff accepted a new job in surveillance at Dakota Dunes, she agonized over the decision. She would have been eligible for nearly 18 weeks of severance pay. The drive from her west-end home to the reserve was also off-putting at first, she said.

"I thought, This money is nice, but I need a job that Im going to enjoy that has benefits and (where they) treat their employees well, " she said.

Dakota Dunes is also paying workers higher wages than some Emerald employees expected, she said.

Many Emerald workers are attempting to get the best of both worlds by claiming their severance and then trying to get work at Dakota later, Kristoff said.

"For myself, with a family, I thought, You know what, I cant risk applying out there later, " she said.

Cook said Dakota Dunes has already hired 329 full-time workers. Although there are 113 jobs still up for grabs, many are part-time or casual positions, she said, which the casino hopes to recruit post-secondary students to fill.

That more Emerald employees didnt apply to work for SIGA "wasnt for lack of trying," Cook said. The authority held information sessions with Emerald employees and distributed information to the workers, including the layout of the building and the services and facilities available to them.

SIGA will also provide shuttle buses for workers to and from set locations around Saskatoon during each shift change, she said.

"We certainly were looking forward to drawing on some of the skills and experience that those employees would be able to bring to the casino," she said.

Many of the jobs were filled by the more than 1,000 applicants SIGA found at a job fair held in downtown Saskatoon, Cook said.

She couldnt say how likely it is Emerald workers applying to Dakota Dunes later will find work there.

"Well always be looking for experienced employees," she said.

But some workers arent interested in moving to the new casino.

David Earl, currently the bank manager at Emerald, has been with that casino for 13 years. The newly married 35-year-old is looking at Emeralds closure optimistically -- as an opportunity for a career change while hes still young.

The out-of-town travel was a major deterrent for Earl. An eight-hour work day would stretch into 9 1/2 hours with the commute, he said.

He was also concerned smoking would be allowed in parts of the new $61-million casino.

A severance package of 39 weeks of pay was also an attractive offer for him.

Still, Earl said it still doesnt seem real his workplace of more than a decade is about to vanish.

"Its been a fun place to work," he said. "Theres so many people of so many different backgrounds who work here. . . .You become friends with a lot of different people, which is something you may not always get in other industries. You never know who youre going to be talking to up in the coffee room."

Despite the shutdown of Emerald, a demolition crew wont be on site just yet, Prairieland Park CEO Mark Regier said.

For now, a restaurant in the building will remain open, as will an area for people to bet on horses and watch the races on television.

"I dont anticipate for the long-term the building will be in use, because it needs some work," Regier said.

The casino furniture will be put to use at other Prairieland events, and the gaming tables will likely be rented out for charity casinos to use, he said.

David Morris, a spokesperson for the Saskatchewan Liquor and Gaming Authority, says the 100 government-owned video lottery terminals currently at the Emerald will be redistributed to bars and nightclubs throughout the province.

Meanwhile, Kristoff, whos starting her job at Dakota Dunes on Wednesday, said shes seen and heard nothing but great things about the people and work environment at the new casino.

"When they called to offer me the job and I went there, they treated me like a queen," she said. "I was very impressed."

Lambie, on the other hand, says shell have to look for a job in a different industry. With a husband working in Saskatoon and kids in university here, shes not willing to move to continue her casino career.

"Its a great time to lose your job," she said, referring to the hot local economy. "I havent even started looking, and theres people approaching us."

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