The post-Covid era has rung in one of the most contradictory employment pictures in memory: plenty of jobs, but chronic labor shortages; millions laid off, but many declining to reenter the job market.
In a phenomenon called the “Great Resignation,” almost 3 percent of Americans left their jobs in August, the highest number since December 2000, according to the Department of Labor. Despite higher hourly wages and big hiring bonuses, many people are bypassing jobs in the hospitality professions—restaurants, bars and hotels—in part due to concerns about the delta variant.
But the same factors could open the door to other job-seekers. And in Atlantic County, New Jersey, home of nine Atlantic City casinos, the search just got easier for people once shut out of gaming industry jobs.
Last year, the state passed legislation enabling the Casino Control Commission (CCC) to issue key casino licenses to people convicted of certain non-violent drug offenses. Prior to that, anyone with such a conviction was ineligible to hold a casino job.
New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy signed the bill into law in January 2020, and with the onset of Covid-19, the opportunity quickly vanished. Now it’s back and being actively touted at job fairs and recruitment events. According to commission Chairman Jim Plousis, the gateway could be game-changing and even life-changing for participants. “It means they can start at the bottom, in whatever casino job, and work their way up,” even to the executive level.
An Open Door
According to the Atlantic County Reentry Task Force, the majority of incarcerated people are released into low-income communities, where they “struggle to find employment, overcome addiction and avoid criminal associations.”
As a 40-year law enforcer, who’s logged time as a beat cop, sheriff, U.S. marshal and head of the state parole board, Plousis has seen the cycle first-hand. “I’ve arrested a lot of people, and 10 to 20 percent of the people in jail should stay there for very long time. But 80 percent of the people we dealt with either had a substance abuse problem or bad influences in their lives, and just needed somebody to get them on the right track.
“When I ran the county jail for 17 years, that was always my philosophy: help people get a second shot, get the tools, the skills or job or trade they need to succeed when they’re released.”
In 2017, when he became commission chairman, Plousis was approached with a plan to amend the Casino Control Act, “to allow people who successfully complete drug court—or recovery court, as they call it now— to qualify for a license.” He was all for it.
Recovery court isn’t quick or easy, he pointed out. The website of the New Jersey Courts system describes the multi-year program as “rigorous, requiring intensive supervision based on frequent drug testing and court appearances, along with tightly structured regimens of treatment and recovery services.”
But for those willing to put in the time and effort, it comes with big payoffs: “an opportunity to overcome alcohol and drug dependencies and resolve related criminal charges against them.”
There’s no question about the value of the program, Plousis said. “If a person can’t make a living, they could go right back to a life of crime.” Asked if he got any resistance from the casino industry, he said, “The industry has been very receptive, none of them gave me any pushback. I was pleasantly surprised.”
The program has also been well-received in the community, with recent job events bringing out as many as 175 people. “And I know some people were hired on the spot,” Plousis said.
In June 2021, 30 people graduated from the Atlantic County recovery court program. At the time, Superior Court Judge Jeffrey Waldman said participants “will be re-entering the workforce and life in general with a new skill set and a new appreciation of life. Opportunities abound for these recovery court graduates, who are fortunate that this achievement coincides with the lifting of Covid restrictions.”
Setting the Example
Joe Jingoli, part owner of the Hard Rock Casino Hotel on Atlantic City’s fabled Boardwalk, said the city’s newest casino considers itself “part of a community, part of the neighborhood. My personal belief is that we have a responsibility to the people there, and should give them a second chance and an opportunity to make a living.
“It’s been proven and it’s a fact that (employment) reduces recidivism and improves our communities. And that can only help our businesses,” Jingoli said. “The greatest social program out there is a decent job.”
Since its inception, New Jersey’s reentry program has attracted attention from other states and the District of Columbia, where lawmakers are considering a similar approach.
“This is one of the most regulated industries in the world, and New Jersey is the gold standard,” said Plousis. “So if this industry can take a chance on somebody, it sends a powerful message to other industries that it can work for them too.”
It also sends a message to former offenders, he said: “If you do the right thing and pay your dues to society after getting in trouble, you get a second chance.”
Jim Plousis is the author of Jersey Lawman: A Life on the Right Side of Crime, a rollicking inside look at a life spent in law enforcement, co-authored with George Ingram. Proceeds benefit the U.S. Marshals Survivors Benefit Fund. For more information, visit JerseyLawman.com or go to the authors’ Facebook page.