Takin’ what they’re giving

By cutting hours and shortening the workweek at local casinos, execs compound the working person’s struggle to make ends meet

Casino execs say no layoffs are planned, but shortened workweeks will mean a lean winter for many service workers in Reno.

Casino execs say no layoffs are planned, but shortened workweeks will mean a lean winter for many service workers in Reno.

Photo By David Robert

Hey, I’m not complaining ‘cause I really need the work.
Hitting up my buddy’s got me feeling like
a jerk.
Hundred-dollar car note, two hundred rent.
I get a check on Friday, but it’s already spent.
—Huey Lewis &The News

For one local casino dealer, the issue boils down to the price of a chicken.

“The price of commodities is so high,” says Marina, a mother of four who has spent more than two decades working in local casinos. “When I came over here [from the Philippines], the price of the chicken, the whole chicken, is $1.10. Now it’s three or four dollars.”

Marina works two part-time jobs at different casinos. But since her hours were cut back at both jobs, she’s now looking for a third gig—preferably in some industry other than gambling.

"[The casinos] are cutting our days to work, and that cuts our paycheck,” Marina says. “But they’re not cutting our bills to pay, our rent, our bills to eat. They are the same. They go up.”

It’s not all the fault of tragic events in the Eastern United States. Those events merely compounded what’s already been bad news for local casino workers, who depend on a summer of plenty to get them through a slow winter season.

But after the events of Sept. 11 led to convention and Air Race cancellations—and the loss of millions in revenue—many casinos began to count the costs and take measures. No, most casino executives said, there won’t be massive layoffs. But workers may have a few hours trimmed off their schedules.

That’s not so bad, right? Wrong.

“This is a disaster,” says Tom Stoneburner of the Alliance for Workers Rights. “What’s actually happening is impacting the very bottom of the wage scale: service workers, maids, housemen, valet parkers, kitchen help. When their week is cut back, the impact is much more dramatic than it is for somebody who makes a living wage.”

Stoneburner’s phone has been ringing off the hook. One woman, an internal maintenance worker, called him because she fears losing her apartment.

“She said, ‘They fired me,’ “ Stoneburner says. “But I said, ‘Aren’t you at work right now?’ And she said, ‘They fired me for one day.’ They took one day of her week away from her, and taking away one day hurt her bad enough that she can’t pay her bills. She can’t afford her apartment anymore.”

When a part-time employee works four days a week and has one of those days cut from her schedule, it reduces her income by 25 percent.

“When we talk about a ‘reduction’ or a ‘cutback,’ those are sterile terms that leave out the human cost,” Stoneburner says. “It’s kind of like using ‘collateral damage’ in the military sense, and what that really means is blowing up women and children. Here we talk about reduction in the work force, and what that really means is we’re going to take away the means to exist for men and women in our community.”

It’s not as if Nevadans have plenty of great-paying jobs to choose from. Nearly 60 percent of jobs in Nevada pay less than a living wage for a three-person family, according to the 2001 report Working Hard, Living Poor, which is part of a study done by the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada. Nearly 87 percent of the fastest growing occupations in the state pay less than a living wage, the report showed.

What’s a living wage?

The PLAN report observed the bare-bones budget of families in Reno, Las Vegas and rural Nevada using data from governmental organizations. The budgets were frugal, showing families that shop carefully for food, don’t eat out, rent modest apartments, drive old cars and spend nothing on entertainment, recreation, travel—or even long-distance phone calls.

Simply to survive, pay rent and eat, a single parent in Reno with, say, two kids needs to make about $2,500 per month. That allows less than $750 monthly for rent and utilities, about $400 for food, $200 for health care, $200 for transportation, $500 for child care, $300 for taxes and about $150 for miscellaneous expenses or savings. To fund this simple no-frills budget, an individual would have work 40 hours per week at $14.60 an hour.

How many casino maids make nearly $15 an hour?

Right. So to make ends meet, the study found, many individuals must work two jobs.

The PLAN study included the true story of a woman given the fictitious name of Alma, a cleaning woman at a local casino. Alma, 50, cleans bathrooms and banquet rooms from 6 p.m. until 2 a.m. Then she goes to a second job cleaning a fast-food restaurant. She finishes at 11 a.m., sleeps for a few hours, and then wakes up to cook dinner for her grandchildren and help them with homework. Alma, the study says, has worked two full-time jobs for most of the past eight years.

Some call it “time off.” Ferenc Szony, president and CEO of the Sands Regency, told the Reno Gazette-Journal that the Sands wouldn’t lay people off during the quiet months. Instead, workers would get some time off or reduced hours. Jack Fisher, general manager of Boomtown Hotel-Casino, called it “restructuring our schedules.” At the Reno Hilton, some employees have agreed to four-day workweeks, corporate spokeswoman Debbie Munch told RGJ reporter John Stearns, and others have agreed to take vacation time without pay.

There’s no doubt that the businesses have taken a hard hit—even taking into account the record-breaking Street Vibrations event and enthusiasm for new marketing efforts. But if the casinos have the dough to donate to relief efforts in New York, perhaps they could spare a little for the folks at home, Stoneburner says.

“After the terrorist attack, the casino industry responded by doing blood drives and donating money and doing other good things,” he says. “It would appear to me that a patriotic move at this point would be to retain their help at full staff. If they had to take a hit for a week or two, that’s part of doing business. What a service to the community that would have been. Cutting hours seems to be playing into the hands of the terrorists.”

Stoneburner predicts that, if nothing changes, this could be a “tragic winter” for workers in Reno.

“This is an opportunity for the industry to step up to the plate and say that we’re not going to allow our community to be affected by these acts,” he says. “To say, ‘We’re doing all we can to maintain life as we know it.’ “

Casino dealer Marina wouldn’t complain about working two jobs—if she had two good jobs.

“I’m used to working hard,” she says. “It doesn’t bother me too much.”

And so far, she will be able to make her house payment this month.

“I work a long time in a casino,” she says. “I always watch what’s going on, so I had a little preparation, but not much. … I don’t know if the savings I have is enough.”

That’s why, she says, it looks like a good time to get out of the gambling industry.

“The casinos are promising not so much anymore. The money we used to get is not what we’re getting. The tips are very poor. Maybe not because of the happening in New York, but probably because of the big competition. That’s why I am trying to look for a job not in a casino. That’s what I’m trying to figure out."