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Casino Workers Try Luck Elsewhere

Employees displaced by hurricanes head to gambling jobs in Vegas and other cities.

October 04, 2005|From Associated Press

LAS VEGAS — By the time Hurricane Katrina departed, there was no reason for Marlies Welty to stay.

The storm had gutted the Biloxi, Miss., casino where Welty dealt cards. A dozen nearby gambling halls that might have offered work were destroyed or damaged. So Welty packed her bags, toted her two cats and headed for Las Vegas.

"Opportunity came knocking at 160 miles per hour," said Welty, one of hundreds of Gulf Coast casino workers flocking to other gambling capitals in search of a paycheck. "It said, 'Go west, go west.' "

Even as casino operators push to build resorts in Mississippi, gambling sites around the country have begun hiring card dealers, cooks, valets and security guards whose jobs were washed away by Katrina.

About 14,000 people worked in Mississippi's coastal casinos. In New Orleans, 2,600 are out of work after the only on-land casino in the distressed city shut down. More workers could end up in the same predicament if seven casinos around Lake Charles, La., struck by Hurricane Rita don't reopen quickly.

Many workers say they can't afford to wait.

"I don't know if you've been broke. It's not a good feeling," said Welty, who landed a job at the Stardust casino on the Las Vegas Strip. "I'm looking forward to a paycheck."

The world's two largest casino operators, Harrah's Entertainment Inc. and MGM Mirage Inc., have promised to pay their out-of-work employees for 90 days after Katrina. But the companies say they have not decided what they will do once that time ends. Harrah's has put its top executives from the gulf casinos on retainer but says it has to make other decisions on payroll.

In the meantime, casino companies say they're embracing the displaced workers and expediting hiring to fill out their ranks and provide some relief.

Already, gulf casino workers have fanned out to Nevada, New Jersey, Michigan, Indiana, Missouri, Illinois and Connecticut. Louisiana and Mississippi properties that Katrina spared also have hired handfuls.

In Las Vegas, Harrah's has hired more than 60 displaced workers and five to 10 more arrive each day in search of jobs.

Milton Green, 32, was working at the Treasure Chest casino near New Orleans when Katrina swamped the area. With the casino closed, Green drove to his brother's house near East St. Louis, Ill. He applied at several casinos and was quickly hired at the Casino Queen.

At least 25 people have landed jobs at Missouri casinos.

"They're all so desperate, they're looking for anything," said Mike Ryan, executive director of the Missouri Riverboat Gaming Assn. "It's always great to get someone with experience."

Pinnacle Entertainment Inc., which employed 700 at its destroyed Casino Magic Biloxi, has transferred about 50 people to its corporate offices in Las Vegas and its casinos in Louisiana and Indiana.

One of the workers, Russell Stokes, said he and his wife, also a casino worker, had difficulty imagining a return.

"I think we're done with the coast for a while.... We're done with hurricanes for a while," he said.

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