Thousands of Mississippi casino workers return as Katrina anniversary nears

Published 7:27 pm Friday, July 14, 2006

Ten hours after the doors to Boomtown Casino opened for the first time since Hurricane Katrina closed them, beads of sweat trickled down James Walker’s smiling face after a long shift dealing cards.

Returning to his old job felt like “hitting the Lotto” to Walker, who worked at a Lowe’s home improvement store while he waited for the western-themed casino to reopen June 29.

“It feels like I never left,” said the 32-year-old father of two, whose uniform is a T-shirt that boasts, “We’re Back in the Saddle Again!”

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Walker is one of thousands of casino employees returning to work this summer as more hotel and casino resorts reopen on Mississippi’s hurricane-battered Gulf Coast. And for many, the tip-driven incomes are a welcome relief from minimum wages, odd jobs or unemployment checks.

“I love my job. I have a good time here, a lot of friends,” Walker said.

The five coastal casinos that have reopened since Katrina employ around 6,000 workers. That number is expected to grow to roughly 10,000 by Sept. 1 with the return of several more casinos, all of which are struggling to find workers.

Katrina’s powerful winds and storm surge demolished or crippled the dozen casino barges that lined the Mississippi coast, but the region’s gambling industry is rebounding more quickly than many experts initially anticipated. Day and night, gamblers drive past blocks of destruction to jockey for seats at blackjack tables and slot machines.

The first three Gulf Coast casinos that reopened after Katrina grossed a total of $246.6 million from January through April — more than half of what 12 coast casinos took in during the same period of 2005.

The post-Katrina boom hasn’t come without serious challenges for casino operators.

Katrina scattered thousands of veteran casino employees and eroded the pool of potential replacements. The storm also left tens of thousands of homes in ruins, creating a housing shortage that makes it difficult for casinos to recruit new hires and lure back old employees.

“Housing is the most difficult obstacle they’re facing right now,” said Larry Gregory, executive director of the Mississippi Gaming Commission. “It’s a definite problem, and there’s no answer right now.”

The developers behind Bacaran Bay, a $560 million casino and condominium project, haven’t broken ground yet and won’t be hiring employees for at least another month and the housing crisis already looms large over the project.

“Affordable housing is the number one, two and three priority down here,” said Michael Cavanaugh, an attorney for the project.

To fill jobs in a competitive market, casino executives say they’re boosting pay, offering more generous benefits and helping workers find affordable housing and child care.

Treasure Bay, which reopened in Biloxi in June with 200 employees, plans to hire an additional 300 workers by October as it expands its operations. The casino has “significantly” increased salaries to help attract employees, said chief operating officer Susan Varnes.

“I’m not kidding myself to think we’re automatically going to fill those 300 slots,” Varnes said. “It will be getting much more difficult.”

Boomtown’s parent company, Penn National Gaming Inc. of Wyomissing, Pa., has offered raises of up to 20 percent to its 765 employees, roughly one-third of whom are new hires.

The company also doled out $1.5 million in grants to 1,300 employees at Boomtown and at Casino Magic in Bay St. Louis, Miss., which is scheduled to open early this fall under a new name — Hollywood Casino. The grants were designed to help employees affected by Katrina pay for housing, food and clothes.

Beau Rivage, owned by MGM Mirage Inc., was considered the most upscale of the Mississippi casino resorts before Katrina. It plans to have 3,800 employees when it reopens in Biloxi on Katrina’s Aug. 29 anniversary. Fewer than 1,000 jobs are left to be filled, and many of those are for cooks and housekeepers, said Rogena Barnes, the casino’s head of human resources.

“It’s as challenging a (job) market as you can get,” Barnes said. “The labor pool is really dwindling.”

The hiring competition will only get tougher with several huge projects in the works, including plans by Donald Trump’s casino company to build a gambling resort in Diamondhead, west of Biloxi.

Barnes said the casino has been approached by developers who want to team up with Beau Rivage to build housing for its employees. That wouldn’t solve any short-term housing needs, however, because any construction project would likely take at least a year to complete.

“Right now, we’re not in the real estate business,” Barnes said. “Does it mean we’re not going to explore it in the future? No, it does not.”

In April, Beau Rivage opened an office in a strip mall where applicants interview for jobs and newly hired — or rehired — employees come to fill out paperwork. “Every day here is like a reunion,” said Marie Twiggs, Beau Rivage’s employment and employee services manager.

John Nguyen, a Beau Rivage dealer since the casino opened in 1999, visited the employment center one recent afternoon to formally accept his job offer. Nguyen, 38, has been working as an insurance adjuster since the storm left him unemployed.

“I can’t wait to come back,” he said. “Best job on the coast. Good company. Good money.”

Eric Brackett, one of many Beau Rivage employees who relocated to Las Vegas after Katrina, has enjoyed his “working vacation” at the Bellagio, another MGM Mirage-owned property. He’s decided, after months of agonizing, to return to Beau Rivage in August.

The 38-year-old plans to live with relatives until he can build a home of his own. “That’s why it’s easier for me to come back,” he said in a telephone interview.

“I like it out here, but I was content in Mississippi,” he said. “It’s all about the quality of life for me … the Southern way of living.”