No ‘Great Resignation’ at California Tribal Casino

For casino operators, employee loyalty may be as vital as customer loyalty—especially in the era of the Great Resignation. As other properties struggle to staff up, Graton Resort and Casino in Northern California has retained a full complement of loyal employees.

No ‘Great Resignation’ at California Tribal Casino

It’s a simple concept, really. Treat your employees really well—like family—and they won’t join the more than 47 million Americans who took part in the so-called “Great Resignation” that began last year.

The Covid-19 pandemic has led to labor shortages in all sectors, but hospitality and gaming have been especially hard hit. Employers are practically begging people to apply for jobs. The phenomenon has put workers in the driver’s seat, in a position to demand higher pay, more perks and increased remote-work options. In many cases, people haven’t returned to their old jobs, even when the positions reopened. It’s the workforce version of a buyer’s market.

Greg Sarris doesn’t worry much about employees leaving for greener pastures. Sarris is chairman of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, which operates the largest tribal casino in the Golden State. Graton Resort and Casino, the third largest employer in Sonoma County, has seen the opposite of the Great Resignation. Workers there are thinking in terms of careers.

Behind the phenomenon is a sense of loyalty on both sides. In 2021, at the height of the pandemic, Graton raised its minimum wage substantially higher than surrounding businesses. It continued to provide both wages and benefits during that time.

“Our ancestors have a strong ethic of taking care of one another,” Sarris said. “We were closed for 92 days, and we kept everyone’s benefits going in order to keep the best team members. We kept everyone’s insurance going, full coverage during the three-month closure and even when we reopened at 25 percent capacity. All of our team members were never without insurance. That kept everybody loyal. And it makes economic sense for the business.”

Those benefits included medical, dental, and vision insurance available without payroll deductions, 401(k) retirement savings with employer matching contributions, generous paid time off, free daily meals during paid breaks, and tuition reimbursement.

Sarris (l.) attributes employee loyalty to “our overall care of our tribal members. Caring for our team members and equality and justice in the workplace—that’s consistent with our social justice and environmental stewardship, and consistent with the aesthetics and ethics of our ancestors.”

Graton employees got a better deal than they would have found elsewhere in the Bay Area, according to Sarris. “We raised the minimum wage for non-tipped salaried employees to $17.50, well above the state $15 minimum. Anybody that was hourly, we kept them covered salary-wise until Covid money kicked in. We kept paying them”—all 2,000 workers.

The chairman said he developed this philosophy as a young man when he worked in the fields, painted fences, toiled in horse barns and later, worked as a member of a labor union, pouring concrete. “I knew what hard work was. I saw how workers can be invisible in the workplace, how you wait for someone to say ‘I see you.’ My poor mother worked until she was 70, at J.C. Penney’s.”

As he walks around the tribal casino, “I always want to make people feel that I see them,” he said. “I make a point of saying hello to them. I tell them there’s no glass ceiling, and that whatever you want to do, you work toward that. Show interest, and we will show interest in you.”

Ernie Aranaga, director of facilities and infrastructure, has been at Graton since it opened, nine years ago. The former business owner applied at the casino after visiting and seeing the scope of the operation. As a Native American from Montana, he was attracted to working for a casino operated by tribal members.

“I felt it was a place I could work at until I retired,” said Aranaga, whose ascent was swift. Within a year, he was promoted to supervisor, and two years later, became engineering manager. Last year, he rose again, to facilities director. “I’ve grown and exceeded projections nonstop,” he said. “I give this place a lot of dedication.”

He praised the “awesome leaders” of the casino. “It’s hard work, but I have very little turnover. I have guys who have worked five-plus years in my department, and there are other departments where you see whole families working. I know everyone on property. They’re like my second family. They’re team-oriented.”

It’s an egalitarian atmosphere, he said, where anyone at any level can approach a boss or supervisor with a request or suggestion. “If I have an issue, I’ve always been listened to in my input and ideas to help the department grow. They listen without judgment. Heck, I walk up to the chairman as well. Everything here is new and exciting and challenging. If you like that, you’re going to excel here.”

Another success story is Buoi Nguyen, slots manager. “I’ve been here since pre-opening, when I started as a shift manager,” he said. Nyugen, too, praises the “great leadership” of the casino resort. “What caught my attention was that during Covid, not knowing if you would have your job, Graton kept us all on the payroll and we kept our benefits and medical. They kept our 401(k)s going. They often gave us daily meals. The list goes on. They took care of all of us, even when we were closed. They kept us all on board.”

As a father of four, that meant a lot to Nyugen. “They care about more than work. They care about us, our personal lives and our families. I look forward to many more years, however long that is. You get have a career path here because they promote from within. It’s a good place to work. I look forward to going to work every day.”

Sarris said he hopes the Graton philosophy serves as a model for :other tribal casinos nationwide and for other businesses. The proof in the pudding is that it makes for good business. We’re thriving and doing better than we did before the pandemic. We weren’t stressed. Taking care of your people pays you well in return.”

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.