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Taxes Fund Health Care of Casino Staff Families

March 18, 2003|Louis Sahagun | Times Staff Writer

Many of the children of low-paid casino workers employed by a prosperous and politically active Riverside County Indian tribe are insured in government-subsidized health-care programs because the tribe does not offer coverage the workers can afford, according to a UCLA survey.

Researchers surveyed 199 workers out of a group of 470 low-paid cooks, bartenders, janitors, and attendants at the Rancho Mirage casino of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians. Based on the survey, they concluded that about 46% of low-wage workers at the casino enrolled their children in Medi-Cal or the state Healthy Families program between October 2002 and January 2003.

The researchers gained access to the workers with help from a union seeking to organize workers at the casino.

"The number of casino employees' children in Healthy Families is greater than that of many towns in Riverside County," said Cal State San Bernardino economics professor Eric Nilsson, lead author of the survey prepared for UCLA's Institute of Industrial Relations.

The report provides a rare glimpse of the working conditions on the wealthy gambling reservation, where casino workers are not protected by U.S. labor law and the tribe is not obligated to pay local or state taxes. The study is believed to be the first of its kind to provide data on the jobs created within California's surging Indian gambling industry.

It comes at a time when the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians is negotiating with the state to increase the number of slot machines it may operate and as the hotel and restaurant workers union is trying to organize casino employees.

The tribe and others successfully pressured Assemblywoman Judy Chu (D-Monterey Park) to delay hearings on the health-care issue, saying they need more time to respond to the survey's findings.

A hearing initially set for today was postponed until April 1 after a tense meeting last week between Chu and eight Native Americans and four lobbyists representing several tribes, including the Agua Caliente. "I am very sympathetic to the issue of tribal sovereignty," Chu said. "But I also think it is important to have fair working conditions at these casinos."

In a letter to Chu, who heads the Assembly health and human services subcommittee, Brenda Soulliere, chairwoman of the California Nations Indian Gaming Assn., said she was "deeply disappointed" the hearing had not been postponed indefinitely, given that the tribes are in the midst of compact talks.

Insurance Unaffordable

While the tribe fully insures its casino workers and offers its own family insurance plans, most of the predominantly Latino and white employees cannot afford them, the survey found. The casino's family insurance plan costs its workers $2,880, which compares with the California average for such a plan of $1,806.

The average hourly wage of the workers is $8.93, excluding tips -- lower than the amount needed to sustain a modest standard of living, according to the California Budget Project, a nonprofit research agency. A single adult without children would have to earn $9.79 per hour to reach the level the agency recommends.

"The casino ... tells its workers to go to the government for health care," Nilsson said. "On the one hand, that's thoughtful. On the other, the casino has intentionally created conditions, such as high employee health-care premiums, that make sure that employees do not buy family health-care insurance through the casino.... The casinos leave state taxpayers to pick up the tab for the health-care needs of their employees," Nilsson said.

Agua Caliente financial officer Max Ross acknowledged that the tribe provides its employees with information about state health-care programs. However, he said, "we do not encourage them to get on those programs.... Some employees choose Healthy Families over our programs because they have to pay only $9 a month per kid," Ross said. "And why not? There's no plan in the country that can compete with that."

Healthy Families covers children between birth and age 19 whose families earn no more than 250% of the federal poverty level, or about $45,000 a year for a family of four.

Ross questioned the survey's estimate of the casino worker's average pay and the percentage of employees' children covered by state or federal insurance programs. He declined to provide the tribe's figures.

"We'll be reviewing the survey carefully," Ross said. "In the near future, we will comment on the accuracy of its numbers and conclusions."

The Indian gambling industry has experienced stunning growth over the past decade, pulling many tribes out of poverty and creating an estimated 35,000 jobs statewide. Few tribes, however, have fared as well as the Agua Caliente, the only one in California with two casinos. The tribe plans to expand its operations by building, among other things, a $400-million complex in downtown Palm Springs.

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