Back to Work: How Casinos Are Bringing Back Staff, Attracting New Hires

Hospitality workers are in greater demand than ever as business gets back to pre-Covid levels. Like other businesses across the U.S., casino resorts are rolling out a red carpet of perks and benefits to lure new employees, like dealers who need to be trained.

Back to Work: How Casinos Are Bringing Back Staff, Attracting New Hires

A recent New York Post headline said it all: “American Idle.”

Subtitled, “9 Million Jobs Open, 3.5 Million Unemployed,” the cover story ran with an illustration of Uncle Sam reclining on a divan.

The significance of the headline wasn’t lost on employers across the U.S., particularly in the hospitality industry. Many workers who became unemployed in 2020 have chosen to stay home until September, when extended benefits end. In some cases, it’s because they make more by collecting unemployment. In others, it’s due to lingering concerns about the virus.

But workers are needed more than ever as resort patrons return (all that “pent-up demand”). So in an all-out effort to attract new employees and bring back those who were laid off, commercial and tribal casinos are offering bonuses and benefits that were unheard-of before Covid-19.

The Bonus Round

“We’re definitely having a labor problem,” said Jeff Hamilton, president and general manager of Mohegan Sun in Uncasville, Connecticut. There may be relief in sight, since the state now requires those collecting unemployment to show they’re actively seeking work.

“We’re doing $2,000 signing bonuses for culinary,” Hamilton said. “We’re struggling to find skilled culinarians.” The Mohegan Tribe’s flagship property also offers $500 signing bonuses as well as referral bonuses for team members who recruit good people. “Through just those programs, we’ve found 40 new members,” said Hamilton.

Mohegan Sun is also conducting in-person job fairs on a bi-weekly basis.

“When we first started, it was a little bit slow,” said Hamilton. “But since the state took action, we’ve seen interest increase. We’re slow-walking the reopening of the property, but our plan is to reopen the Mohegan Sun Arena fully at the end of July. We’re taking a slower approach to removing the restrictions. As consumer confidence grows, we’ll move to full capacity.” As of June, some restaurants at the resort couldn’t operate at full capacity, in part due to the labor shortage.

The expiration of subsidies, the increasing number of vaccinations and the end of mask mandates are all “big benefits,” said Hamilton. “As we start to get back to normal, we’ll get back to full team member participation. We believe consumer confidence will be higher. All those things lead me to believe that by the fall we’ll be in a much better position.”

Erica Ferris, director of marketing for the Monarch Casino in Black Hawk, Colorado, needed nearly 370 positions filled for the resort’s 516-room hotel, three new restaurants, a rooftop spa and pool. Wages match or exceed those offered elsewhere, Ferris said. Full-time jobs come with benefits for employees and their families. Workers can be paid to relocate, and the resort will also pay bus fare for commuters.

The state Department of Labor and Employment added motivation with a program called “Colorado Jumpstart,” which offered $1,600 to those who returned to work between May 16 and June 26.

Dealing Them In

Eric Persson, CEO of Maverick Gaming, said he’s “gotten creative” to bring on new workers. Maverick has big footprints in its home state of Washington, as well as in Colorado. “Depending on the jurisdiction, we have between 200 and 300 jobs we need filling,” Persson said. “In Washington, we need 350. Our business volumes are expanding, and people are hesitating to come back.”

The company is advertising to fill positions and emphasizing the fact that these are good-paying jobs. “We’re making it known that our dealer jobs pay over $100,000 a year,” said Persson. “We train dealers and pay you while we train you. We’ve gone on radio, newspapers, ethic newspapers, plus advertising in Spanish.”

The result was more than 70 applicants in a recent week. “Getting talent into your business is a real challenge for everyone, I think,” said Persson. “For example, in Colorado they’re expanding table games, so we need a lot of dealers because they have a direct impact on our revenues. We also need housekeepers and cooks. This is true in all states, but particularly in Colorado’s Denver’s market and Washington’s Seattle market.”

Maverick team members also get referral bonuses for helping the reemployment effort.

Love the Ones You’re With

The Mill Casino Hotel & RV Park near Coos Bay, Oregon, operated by the Coquille Indian Tribe, has 510 employees and has experienced a labor shortage, said CEO Margaret Simpson.

“What we’ve seen is other companies raising the minimum wage and taking action,” she told GGB News. “We were in a position to respond. We knew we needed to (work on) retention and attract new employees for the summertime.”

The casino launched its Employee Incentive Program in May. “The first part was a Covid appreciation award for current employees,” said Simpson. The program, retroactive to April, pays one month’s salary to employees who stuck around during the pandemic.

“The second part of our incentive program was for recruitment, a supplemental stipend of $5 an hour for each hour worked,” said Simpson. This incentive ends in September. “We wanted to make sure we could remain agile as the economy and work force changed.”

Employees respond to appreciation, Simpson said. “We have less missed days, more employees willing to work overtime, and fewer early outs. And the employees were grateful for the additional money.

“We just had a job fair and attracted over 40 new applicants. We’re busy making job offers. It’s really moved the needle for us as far as recruitment. Forty might not seem large, but we’re a rural community, and that’s great for us.”

Compete Where It Counts: the Paycheck

The strategy of the Graton Resort and Casino, which operates one of the largest casino resorts in California’s Bay Area market, is simple: pay the best rates in the business.

Greg Sarris, chairman of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, told GGB News, “Even though our wages were always high, we raised them so that the starting wage is $18.50 for a non-tip position and $17.50 for non-tip position, whether union or not. We’ve been able to fill our positions, and we’re not having the kind of problem that many in the Bay Area are having. A lot of our success has to do with wages, which I think are the best in the industry.

“That said,” he added, “I was a little surprised that we didn’t have a much deeper pool of applicants. There wasn’t a line. My feeling is that won’t change until Covid relief times out.”

If California employers were stressing before, that may have increased when the state largely reopened as of June 15. According to a recent edition of the San Jose Mercury News, though California workers are filing fewer unemployment claims, the number of jobless filings “remains far worse than the levels before Covid-linked shutdowns began.”

Nationwide, jobless claims totaled 364,000 the week ending June 26, down 51,000 from the prior week, the U.S. Labor Department reported.

Sarris said there’s a lot of talk about the problem in his industry. “Some of the places with larger hotels don’t have the staffs to clean the rooms. I’ve heard there is stress in the Indian casino industry,” possibly for casinos in remote areas. “We’re only 40 minutes from San Francisco, so we have access to a larger pool of workers.”

Graton has another secret sauce for dealing with a tight labor market. “We’re prepared,” said Sarris. “During the Covid closure, we hired a large team of ‘safety ambassadors.’ Easily identifiable by their special clothes, they made sure all the safety mandates were observed.

“Now we’ll transfer them to mainly security jobs, although many want to go into hotel work. Because of our wages, I think we’ll be fine.”

Competitive wages are also key to the strategy at Rivers Casino Des Plaines in Illinois, where Corey Wise is senior vice president and general manager. Rivers Casino is owned by Rush Street Gaming, which is increasing the minimum wage for all its casinos.

“All businesses are looking to hire now, but we made a company-wide commitment to getting up and going, and to generate interest by offering a living wage and great benefits,” Wise told GGB News. “We raised our wages to at least $15, but as we pay all with benefits, we think that number is more like $25 an hour, with no experience needed—all across the board.”

That program launched June 4. “Not only do we think we provide a living wage at entry level, no experience needed, we like to promote and develop from within, expanding our dealers. Dealers can make upwards of $55,000 annually, up to $60,000 with tips,” said Wise. “We average over $55,000 annually for a full-time position. We want this to be a career, not just a job. We support that by hiring good folks, training them up and developing them to leadership positions.”

Rivers also offers a generous benefits package with medical, dental, life and disability insurance and a 401k, along with tuition reimbursement for those who want to rise in the company, said Wise. “We also offer scholarships through the Rivers Foundation to support employees’ higher education.”

The resort is undergoing an expansion and needs “hundreds of dealers,” he said—not just entry level jobs, but dealers.” Rivers hosted a job fair last month that focused specifically on dealer positions, for which training is also available.

Employee Investment and Quality of Life

Andre Carrier is chief operating officer of Eureka Casinos, the only U.S. casino company that is 100 percent employee-owned.

“We’ve built a system around incentivizing our folks to join and stay,” he told GGB News. “Retirement for a 35-year-old is a long way away, but there’s inherent value in getting stock each year. We should be in one of the strongest positions to retain workers. … This continues to be one of the most competitive times to retain workers and attract new ones.”

Carrier said Covid-19 accelerated a trend that had already begun in the service industry. “The portability and transportability of work has never been more pliable. When you have a good job and you’ve been doing it for several years, you don’t think about leaving. The longer you work for a company, you’re vested… Many barriers prevent you from leaving that job. What Covid did was disrupt that employment cycle.”

As a result, workers may return to their old jobs, but are more open to new offers and taking time to make the decision. In Nevada, the reopened casino industry returned to near-normal levels “at a remarkable pace, four to six weeks,” Carrier noted. “We saw occupancy levels advance really quickly. It’s unnatural to put people back to work in such a short time.”

Other factors are “driving this shortfall on the supply side,” he added. “There’s a repricing of many positions across the service industry. Retail is being repriced. Walmart has established a $15 minimum.”

Because service industry jobs are more competitive, Eureka Casinos upped its game. “The quality of your workplace matters,” Carrier said. “Being a place where you want to come to work and feel safe and appreciated matters. We have to look at how good a job we do to curate our workplace so it’s a great place to be. Even though Eureka is perennially on the ‘Great Place to Work’ list, I’m absolutely combing through those lists to see how I can do better.”

While competitive pay is important, he said, so is “quality of work life.”

“We should be attentive to both. It isn’t just about increasing rates of pay. If it’s not a great place to work, people will be out the door three weeks later. Showing appreciation for that extra effort and being attentive to burnout is more important now than ever.”

Articles by Author: David Ross

David D. Ross edits the Escondido Times-Advocate and Valley Roadrunner newspapers. A freelance journalist for over 40 years, Ross is knowledgeable about San Diego's backcountry and has written on tourism in Julian, Palomar Mountain, San Diego Safari Park—and the area’s casinos. He has a master’s degree in military history from Norwich University.