A.C. casino closings have employees reeling

The Trump Plaza plans to close in mid-September - Atlantic City's fourth possible closing since January - and will issue formal layoff notices Monday to about 1,600 workers. A union chief called the closures an "impending catastrophe."
The Trump Plaza plans to close in mid-September - Atlantic City's fourth possible closing since January - and will issue formal layoff notices Monday to about 1,600 workers. A union chief called the closures an "impending catastrophe." (ED HILLE / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 14, 2014

ATLANTIC CITY - While the amusement-park sound of slot machines filtered through Trump Plaza on Saturday, the men and women who staff the casino put on their brave faces.

While they dealt cards, swept the gaming floor, or emptied trash bins as usual, the crisis in this battered resort had deepened the night before. Owners of Trump Plaza confirmed they plan to close the casino in mid-September and will issue formal layoff notices Monday to about 1,600 employees.

"I'm not ready to believe it until I get that notice in my hands, telling me it's time to look for another job," said slot attendant Parimal Mehta, 57, of Egg Harbor Township, who has worked at Trump Plaza for 22 years. "I can't even go there right now."

Mehta's hesitancy arises because he and his peers said they had been told nothing by management. "We're completely in the dark," he said. "Nothing has officially come down to us."

On Friday, Trump Plaza joined Atlantic Club, Revel, and Showboat as Atlantic City gambling halls that have either folded or are on the brink. The closings and potential shutterings could leave just eight casinos here by September, down from a dozen, and have occurred in such rapid succession since January that even local politicians are struggling for words to describe the shock.

"I can't even guarantee no one else will lose their jobs, because I'd be lying," said a somber State Sen. Jim Whelan late Friday, just hours after Trump Plaza notified him of the planned September shutdown.

Just two days before, Aide Montero was at a rally to save her job.

"Keep Showboat open! Keep Showboat open!" Montero, dressed in a gold Showboat housekeeping uniform, chanted alongside hundreds of fellow casino workers as they marched along the Boardwalk.

The event was organized by Unite Here Local 54, the union that represents most casino employees, to protest the planned closing of the Mardi Gras-themed Showboat on Aug. 31. At stake: 2,100 jobs.

With one casino already closed and three in danger of closing, workers who helped build Atlantic City into a gaming powerhouse are watching the place and their livelihoods sink.

The market shakeout, experts say, will have a crippling impact on the local economy. The four gambling halls account for 8,900 jobs - nearly a third of the current casino workforce. The trickle-down effect will be devastating for Montero's family. Her 25-year-old daughter also works as a Showboat housekeeper.

"I'm very scared," said Montero, 50, in her native Spanish. She immigrated to Atlantic City from the Dominican Republic nine years ago and makes $10 an hour plus tips, and cleans 16 rooms a day. "I wonder how we're going to make it."

Montero lives in Pleasantville with her fiance, Curvis Smith. Smith, 51, works in housekeeping for Bally's, delivering linen. Smith's sister's twin sons handle security for Revel, which has filed for bankruptcy a second time and could also close.

Chris Ireland, 55, of Northfield, has been a bartender at Showboat for 27 years. He met his wife, Keisi, 33, a cocktail waitress there for 14 years, on the job. They have a 9-year-old daughter, Cady.

"The prospect of me and my wife both losing our jobs is horrible," Ireland said.

Experts say the city's transition from a gaming mecca to a more diversified economy - while achievable - will take time and pose difficulties in the process.

"It is rare that a monopoly can be sustained for an extended period, and Atlantic City is no different than any other so-called factory town," said Joel Naroff, of Naroff Economic Advisors Inc. in Bucks County. "When the plant closes, so does the town."

Unlike most cities that depend largely on one industry, Naroff said, Atlantic City has the beach to fall back on. "At least A.C. has a chance to go forward," he said.

Parent company Caesars Entertainment Corp. confirmed last week that it was receiving offers to purchase the Showboat, which could save it from closure.

But that's a big maybe.

The Atlantic Club closed in mid-January, taking with it 1,700 jobs. Revel, which employs 3,500 full-time and part-time employees, has threatened to close by Sept. 1 if it doesn't find a buyer.

"I've wondered whether I should go back" to the Dominican Republic, Montero said. "There is not much money to make in Atlantic City anymore."

Montero isn't the only one having second thoughts about the resort.

New Jersey Senate President Stephen Sweeney and Gov. Christie confirmed last week that they were now "open to discussions" to end Atlantic City's 36-year statewide gambling monopoly and allow casinos in North Jersey.

Sweeney said a ballot question allowing state residents to vote on the issue could happen as early as November 2015. A venture capitalist announced last Wednesday that if the rules were changed, it wants to build a $4.6 billion casino complex in Jersey City.

Gaming analysts predict that once the shakeout is complete, the number of Atlantic City casinos will be seven or eight, with about 20,000 workers.

"Many workers have left the area and found jobs in the newly opened casinos along the East Coast," said Michael Busler, a professor of finance at Richard Stockton College of New Jersey. "That may be the best choice for these displaced workers."

It will be out of necessity if she leaves Atlantic City, said Aracelly Mite, 52, who has dealt blackjack for half her life at Trump Plaza.

"I have my kids here, and my home is here," said Mite, of Pleasantville, as she stood behind an empty blackjack table just after 2 p.m. Saturday. As customers walked by, Mite smiled. "But to find a job, I might have to move," she added.

The state is hoping to retrain and retain some. The New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development plans events from July 28 to Aug. 15 for displaced casino workers to match them with local employers. Among the companies attending will be Comcast and Wawa.

During a conference call with reporters Thursday, Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian touted his city's efforts to be less dependent on gambling revenue by going after midweek conventions and adding entertainment. "The growing pains will diminish over time," he said.

Guardian declined to comment on Trump Plaza's closing until there's an official statement, his spokesman said Saturday.

Unite Here Local 54 president Bob McDevitt also was putting the best spin on an increasingly dire situation.

"The obituaries being written about A.C. are overdramatic," he said in an interview earlier last week. By Saturday, with Trump Plaza all over the news, McDevitt called the city's casino closures an "impending catastrophe" and urged Trenton lawmakers to act quickly.

"Atlantic City is the economic engine not only of South Jersey, but also of the tourism industry for the entire state," McDevitt said. "While this is a personal tragedy for every family involved, it is also a crisis for the state."

 There are now just under 32,000 Atlantic City casino employees, down from a peak of 45,000 in 2006 - when the casinos had their best year, generating $5.2 billion in gaming revenue.

The day after Caesars Entertainment announced Showboat's closing, Showboat managers held a meeting in the casino's House of Blues Music Hall and encouraged workers to attend job fairs for the new Harrah's Horseshoe Casino in Baltimore and Harrah's Chester in Delaware County.

Ireland, the Showboat bartender, said management offered him a job at the Baltimore property, but he wasn't interested.

"My roots are here," he said.

But Ireland knows that if he's laid off Sept. 1 he will have to compete for whatever casino work is left, not just among former Showboat workers - and now Trump Plaza refugees - but also with folks like Patty Keefer-Davis, 57, a part-time stagehand.

Keefer-Davis, of Leeds Point, N.J., lost her job of 24 years as a wardrobe stage technician at the Atlantic Club when it closed Jan. 13. The property has sat dark ever since.

Regarding Showboat's impending close, and now Trump Plaza's, Keefer-Davis said: "My first reaction [with each] was, where are all these people going to go, because there's no jobs?"

To celebrate her 30 years at Trump Plaza, the place threw Dorothy "Dot" Long, 60, a party on May 22. The casino had a big cake for her and gave her a pin that said, "Thank you for your service."

On Saturday, Long, a cashier at the casino's restaurants, felt hurt.

"I had to hear about it on the news like everyone else," she said. "I really don't have a plan. At this point, I'm ready to retire."

But Gloria Hoffmann of Egg Harbor Township, a Showboat cocktail server for 23 of her 44 years, and a mother of three, said many aren't that lucky.

After Labor Day, the casinos pare their seasonal workers and hiring comes to a standstill.

"I think a lot of us will be homeless in six months," Hoffmann said.


 


sparmley@phillynews.com

856-779-3928 @SuzParmley

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