Casinos long noted for harassment
Eleanor was intelligent, witty, beautiful and a blackjack dealer at Harrah’s, Harold’s and the Ramada when it was on Sixth Street. She worked her way through college and grad school in the casinos. She recalls pit bosses and their classic line to women dealers: “They rent rooms by the hour at the Mizpah.”
She likely never considered the casinos as a career. They were a means to an end. She attended the University of Nevada, Reno and later became a Reno teacher, eventually leaving the state.
In an email message this week, she wrote, “When I was employed at Harrah’s, the urban myth was that all women 21 dealers over 40 would have to get a hysterectomy because of the standing and high heels. … [T]hey used to talk about the security of having slender and normal-weight dealers. I’m sure that’s why the pit boss I was having trouble with was cupping my butt, just to make sure I was OK.”
Eleanor is long gone, and so is the Mizpah. The sexism and harassment, however, live on.
Her experience and that of so many other casino employees raises the question of why, in this season of anger over sexual harassment in motion pictures, the issue has not thrown a spotlight on Nevada casinos.
The biggest sexual harassment issue that has been brought to light by the current furor is an alleged and heretofore unknown settlement with a former employee by Las Vegas casino figure Steve Wynn. It came out in the legal wrangling between him and ex-wife Elaine Wynn after she lost her seat on the Wynn board of directors. She has been in court seeking documents “regarding any allegations of sexual misconduct made against you by a current or former Wynn Resorts employee,” and the Nevada Supreme Court has so far sided with her.
But such disputes involving workers seldom make it into the public eye or into court, for the simple reason that Nevada law is slanted to favor businesses, which are empowered in Nevada to fire workers without cause. That discourages workers from reporting harassment, much less suing over it.
Cocktail waitresses seem to be among the most common harassment targets, and some officials we spoke with said all waitresses have long been so plagued. That may be true, but most restaurants do not dress their waitresses like hookers, and some casinos do.
Susan Chandler, co-author of Casino Women, said harassment can come from two sources. “One is within the casinos, supervisors to workers, and the other is guests to workers.”
That shows how complicated the situation can become, since supervisors—who in most businesses would be expected to protect workers—have been known as harassers themselves in casinos.
Moreover, some workers have long argued that a casino in Nevada’s laissez faire business environment, can itself perform a type of harassment. They point to Harrah’s one-time policy of forbidding workers to get older. Under this policy, each worker was photographed and if, over the years, his or her appearance changed, the worker could be fired. Harrah’s called it the Personal Best Initiative, and a lawsuit against it was rejected by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco. (Paradoxically, one of the appeals judges who voted with the workers in that case was Alex Koskinski, who recently resigned from the Ninth Circuit after being accused of harassment.)
Requirements that cocktail waitresses wear high heels on the job were similarly viewed by some workers as harassment, and as a result, Chandler and co-author Jill Jones wrote in their book that it could lead to addiction.
They quoted cocktail waitress Genette Louis, who said, “Drugs help you wear heels, drinking helps you wear heels, anything that takes your mind off the pain.” The authors report that Louis underwent multiple surgeries and now experiences chronic pain. She never filed for worker compensation, so she paid the bills herself.
These go well beyond sexual harassment, of course, but they show the working conditions in which casino workers dwell, and the limits on their freedom of action under Nevada’s anti-worker laws.
Dealers do not have the workload cocktail waitresses have, of hauling around full drink trays that can weigh 25 pounds while covering miles a night. But that doesn’t free them from sexual innuendo and demands. Chandler and Jones quoted one dealer: “If you dropped a card, the pit boss would kneel down to get it and say, ’Is there anything else you want me to do while I’m down here?’” The same waitress recalled a pit boss who would run his craps stick “up your legs if you were wearing a skirt.”
Given the nature of state laws, casino regulators seem to be the workers only hope. Former Nevada lieutenant governor Sue Wagner is a former gambling regulator, and we asked her if casinos who tolerate harassment of their workers can be penalized.
“I think it’s something that regulators, whether it be the [Gaming Control] Board and [Nevada Gaming] Commission, should look at. I think that is important, and it issomething that, if I were on the commission, I would definitely bring it up to the other commissioners as to whether it’s something that I feel we should look at, and hopefully they would agree with me.”
“I think that it’s a pretty closed world,” Chandler said, putting her finger on one of the advantages the casinos have—a long tradition of internal operations being disclosed only when regulators have reason to consider them germane to matters before the commission. (An interview with Sue Wagner appears on page 27.)
On the other hand, in today’s political climate, the conduct of some casinos supervisors may be getting more scrutiny than usual.