Tribal Chairman: Minimum Wage Hikes ‘The Right Thing to Do’

As the debate grows about minimum wage hikes, this tribal casino voluntarily stepping up to increase rates. Greg Sarris (l.), chairman of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, says it’s a matter of principle.

Tribal Chairman: Minimum Wage Hikes ‘The Right Thing to Do’

Amid a growing national conversation about minimum wage hikes—the so-called “Fight for $15”—a California tribal casino has voluntarily stepped up to increase worker compensation.

Recently, 2,000 employees at the Graton Resort and Casino at Rohnert Park in Northern California got a pleasant surprise—a pay increase of at least $2.50 an hour, raising the minimum hourly wage to $18.50. The property is the third largest employer in Sonoma County.

Salaried employees will get a 10 percent bonus, and those working more than 20 hours per week will get full medical benefits, along with meals. This despite the fact that the casino was operating at 25 percent capacity in March, when the increase was first announced (the enterprise did get some funding from the federal Paycheck Protection Program).

Greg Sarris, chairman of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, told GGB News his tribe was happy to buck the trend that became the norm during the Covid-19 pandemic. With shutdowns and capacity limits, the hospitality industry lost more than 700,000 jobs.

“Simply put, it’s the right thing to do,” said Sarris. “We believe in dignity in the workplace, and provide all of our team members a wage that allows them to live comfortably and be rewarded for the hard work and success they have enabled us to have.”

As sovereign nations, tribes aren’t required to abide by county or state rules on minimum wages. The Bay Area is a notoriously expensive region to live in, as Aamir Deen, president of Unite Here Local 49, which represents casino workers, told the San Francisco Chronicle. “The cost of living in the Bay Area is so high and so many people pay a really large portion of their income towards rent,” he said. “This makes that portion more manageable.”

Kathy Winfield, a public areas cleaner at Graton Resort & Casino, told Native Business magazine, “The cost of living makes it really hard to hold on in Sonoma County. It’s been years since I had the chance to take a family vacation. … Family is so important, and this raise will give us the chance to start a new chapter.”

The idea to raise worker pay and benefits “was totally the tribe’s idea, unilaterally,” said Sarris. “The tribe’s mission is social justice and environmental stewardship. Social justice starts at home. … Again, it’s only the right and just thing to reward those who work so hard to enable us our success.”

The increases were implemented though money is tight and the resort continues to operate at less than 100 percent capacity. “We worked hard and looked at our numbers and figured out what we can afford to do, and implemented our decision accordingly,” Sarris said. “It will lead to no staffing cuts. We will not have to cut any expenses.”

Besides, the tribe is confident it will see a return on its investment in terms of worker retention, job satisfaction and job performance.

“First, the enthusiasm and gratitude of the team members is reflected in their work and treatment to our guests. It’s simply a win-win. Second, we’ll keep the best work force. Third, there’s no shortage of people of wanting to work at Graton Resort and Casino. The word is out that Graton respects and treats its team members well. Fourth, it sets an example for other hospitality businesses to do likewise and to see the great benefits as the result.”

In April, Oregon’s Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians (UIDC) raised its minimum wage to $14 per hour. The tribe operates the Seven Feathers Casino Resort in Canyonville.

“UIDC has always offered strong support to its team members,” Travis Hill, vice president for business operations, said in a news release. “We’ve always known that when we achieved our goals financially, we wanted to share that success with our team members.”

And just this week, the Gun Lake tribe in Michigan raised its minimum pay over 30 percent to $14 an hour.

“The Gun Lake Tribe recognizes that the past year has presented all of our Team Members with unique circumstances and an ever-changing environment,” said tribal Chairman Bob Peters. “We are proud of our team members for pushing through every challenge while continuing to provide superior service and maintain a safe environment. On behalf of our tribal council, and all of our tribal citizens, I say a heartfelt thank you to the Gun Lake Casino team. We are honored to provide the team with these well-deserved compensation increases.”

“We recognize the value of recruiting and retaining top-tier talent at all levels of our organization. Providing the best starting wage in the area will continue to solidify our mission and demonstrate the appreciation we have for our valued team members,” said Sal Semola, president and chief operating officer. “I applaud the Gun Lake Tribe for the continued investment into the local community and for their dedication to preserving Gun Lake Casino as a leading employer in the region.”

Could higher pay rates become a trend among tribal casinos?

“I will never tell another tribe what it should do,” said Sarris. “All tribal leaders must respect our respective tribe’s sovereignties. We are sovereign nations, and that must always be considered first. That said, I believe that all people who employ others should treat those they employ with utmost respect and dignity and pay their employees a wage that enables the employees a healthy and comfortable life.”

Meanwhile, the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour has not been raised since 2009. President Joe Biden backs legislation that would raise the rate to $9.50 and gradually increase it to $15 by 2025.

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.