Stories from a Casino Economy - Just One More Hand: Life in the Casino Economy (2015)

Just One More Hand: Life in the Casino Economy (2015)

Chapter 1

Stories from a Casino Economy

It’s a unique industry because you’re basically, it’s a factory job because you’re producing, but you’re not producing a product. It’s open 24/7, which most business aren’t. You’re dealing with the public constantly. You’re being watched constantly. You come into contact with the very rich to the very poor; every nationality walks through the doors. You never, it’s like live theater because you never know what’s going to happen. You think it’s going to be a normal day, and somebody comes walking through and does something just so bizarre that, it’s like you can’t even make it up. It’s just like … it’s like … it’s so … it’s never the same.

—Ken, Dual-Rate Pit Manager

The excitement of participating in a perennial party and the adventure of meeting people from every walk of life—from NBA basketball pros and Hollywood producers to gypsies in town for a funeral. A winning player tosses a $1,000 chip onto the serving tray of a cocktail waitress. Regular customers become like family, sharing major life events. The challenge of spotting cheaters. The pride of learning how to handle people when they are at their worst. Walking away at the end of the shift, knowing you made good money for yourself and your family.

And yet… . High rollers whose every whim must be gratified and whose abuse must be deflected. Slot machine players who refuse to leave a machine they expect to pay off any minute, so they urinate right where they sit. Exhaled smoke directly aimed at your face because you dealt a losing hand. Or being hit with a drink, or even worse, spit. Being called every possible vile name or swear word. Con artists who advise players and then ask for a piece of their winnings. Prostitutes hanging on the arm of a “whale,” with sexual acts performed as if they were hidden from view under the gaming tables. Job auditions requiring a bikini or a short, revealing uniform, and “Please bend down and pick something up off the floor.” Constant noise, noise, noise. More drinking. More smoke. More abuse. More unhappy losers.

Sound like a typical day at your job? It is life on the job in a casino.

People construct lives and identities in a particular context that is profoundly shaped by the economic structures in which they work. Workers in Atlantic City’s casinos do this in an unusual environment. Gamblers come to hit the jackpot that will transform their lives, or at least to escape their daily routine for a short time. The physical environment of the casinos is designed around escapist fantasies of other places and times—from generic visions of opulence to specific daydreams of a nineteenth-century frontier saloon (Bally’s Wild West Casino), ancient Roman bacchanals (Caesars Atlantic City), or a Maharajah’s palace (Trump Taj Mahal). Time is supposed to be suspended. Casinos are open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, and fifty-two weeks a year. The gaming floors typically have no windows and no clocks. But within these self-contained environments devoted to risk and reward, the diverse employees who make up the casino workforce are also seeking to create their lives. They punch time clocks, serve cocktails and meals, deal cards, spin wheels, deflect complaints, make beds, wash dishes and laundry, observe customers, monitor employees, fix plumbing and slot machines, and perform a myriad of other challenging, mundane, and sometimes curious tasks.

The fact of near-chronic losing influences the interaction between the service provider and the consumer, making gambling distinctive as compared with other experiences for sale in the leisure and entertainment sector of the economy. Gamblers generally lose, and the games played against the house are structured to ensure this is the case. The carrot of “comps” (rewards based on the amount a player bets) and free drinks offered to customers while gambling further complicate the transaction. Graciela, a former pit manager with over thirty years of experience who shifted to a part-time supervisor in order to go to college, compared the casinos with another popular entertainment option: “What makes a difference is because people expect something back. When you go to Disney World—I’ll just use Disney World, I love Disney World—you go there, you’re thinking, ‘I’m gonna have a great time.’ You’re not expecting Disney to give you something at the end of your stay.” She eloquently observed a few minutes later that “The truth of the exchange is less clear, it seems like, because you know you’re just going to get a movie or you know you’re gonna get a dance floor to dance on and other things. And in gambling, you don’t know what you’re getting back as the customer, and customers may have unrealistic expectations about what they are gonna get back.” The free alcohol that lowers inhibitions doesn’t necessarily mix well with losing money. A relatively new dealer, Ally, noted when asked what makes casinos different as workplaces, “I guess probably the biggest comparison is that most people in the workplace don’t have to tolerate smoke and drunks. If a drunk came into an office he’d be tossed out… . That’s probably the biggest thing—the drinking. Alcohol changes personalities—let’s face it.”

In important ways, working in casinos is not much different than working in other industries in a market economy. There are bosses, good and bad, who affect your daily experience on the job. There are rules and regulations for job performance—especially strict ones in the gaming pits. There are uniforms to wear and roles to play. There are unionization campaigns and management memos about teamwork. There are conflicting demands from work and family life, and creative ways to solve the conflicts. There are people and policies that make the job better, and others that strip away one’s dignity. But central to our study is a story that workers all over can relate to: a workplace in an industry that seemed to promise a solid and stable livelihood is being transformed by competitive pressures, causing employees to lose their economic footing. What seemed like a good job one day becomes a bad job the next. So the experiences of Atlantic City’s casino employees are in many ways illustrative of what workers are facing and how they are coping throughout the contemporary political economy.

In a postindustrial United States, casinos have become both a metaphor for a roller-coaster economy and a key service industry selling experiences and dreams. As various economic bubbles have burst, the U.S. economy since the start of the new millennium has seemed to be more of a casino than a factory: a place where you put down your money and cross your fingers. Buying a home, saving for retirement, getting a student loan, starting a business, or even accepting a job seem like risky ventures rather than sure bets. In such turbulent times, we all seem to be gamblers, even when we do not intend to be.

But actual gambling is big business. Thirty-nine U.S. states have commercial casinos, tribal casinos, racetrack casinos, card rooms, and/or electronic gaming devices.[1] (We are not including states that only operate lotteries.) For a decade, gambling has been a form of entertainment with greater consumer expenditures than movie tickets, video games, theme parks, recorded music, and spectator sports combined. Commercial casinos alone earned over $37 billion just from their gaming operations in 2012. Casinos are major entertainment venues. The American Gaming Association reports that 34 percent of Americans visited a casino in 2012. Young adults (aged twenty-one to thirty-five) are even more likely to go to casinos; the same survey found 39 percent had visited a casino. Moreover, the casino industry is emblematic of a relatively recent wave of service industries that sell a form of experience as their product.

Casino billboards advertise: “Easy Street. It’s Only a Play Away.” Or “How Far Will You Go to Win Big?” And “Are You Ready to Play?” If you can get the customers in the door and into the gaming pits, these businesses guarantee revenue for “the house.” The casinos’ “edge” is improved by “payment of less than true odds to winners (out of the losers’ pool).”[2] Gambling, for casino operators, was a sure bet.

It is no longer a sure bet. The enormous growth of recent decades has reached the point of market saturation. That is, when new markets and new casinos open, they try to “cannibalize” the customer base of their predecessors. Even prior to the economic and financial crisis that began in 2008, the growth pace of gaming across the United States was slowing. During the Great Recession and its aftershocks, revenue plummeted while casino operators found new profit centers overseas. Macau, a city in southern China located on a peninsula, surpassed Las Vegas as the world’s largest gaming market in 2006. Less than one-fourth of the gaming industry is now centered in the United States. The global casinos and gaming sector grew at the same time the industry was shrinking in the United States. The average annual decline in U.S. gross gaming revenue (or “win”), a key indicator used to gauge profitability, was 0.6 percent from 2006 through 2010.[3]

Atlantic City’s casinos faced even worse conditions. For example, Atlantic City experienced the country’s largest percentage decrease in gross gaming revenue in 2010, over 9 percent.[4] Despite the opening of a new casino in town, gross gaming revenue declined 8 percent in 2012.[5] Once the shiny new attraction that lured gamblers from all over the East Coast, if not the world, Atlantic City today is scrambling to find a formula that can restore its edge, providing lessons for policy makers and others committed to economic development and sustainable livelihoods.

Atlantic City’s efforts to restore its position as a destination resort demonstrate the difficulties for local communities that are building new casinos in the hopes of luring tourists. Las Vegas has successfully supplemented gambling with a broader appeal, but copying their model in today’s market is challenging. As casinos proliferate and gambling is more and more convenient, it ceases to be special. Why plan a vacation to gamble when you can just drive a few miles to indulge? The voices of Atlantic City’s casino workers also show that a casino economy is increasingly a tough way to build a life. Though the jobs can seem fun and glamorous, gambling culture can grind you down. And, as the employers in the industry feel competitors and creditors breathing down their necks, a short-term focus on the bottom line is eroding those aspects of the jobs that were once valued by employees. But this undermining of job quality is not unique to casinos. The U.S. economy has lost its edge in many industries and regions. Businesses are trying to survive by trimming, then cutting, then slashing costs. As they do, good jobs are harder to come by.

The initial puzzle that prompted us to undertake this project was a concern with whether the casino economy was providing employees good jobs. We decided that it would be important to listen to what casinos workers said about what constituted a good job and what they viewed as the positive and negative qualities of their own working lives.

Of course, we brought our own standpoint to this process. We view paid work as more than simply a means to material ends like buying a house, paying your bills, or saving to retire. Work, both paid and unpaid, is part of a complex economic process that can be referred to as social provisioning.[6] An economy, from this perspective, is how society organizes these provisioning activities, mediated by culture, ideology, and institutions. The processes involved in social provisioning, according to economist William Dugger, “produce goods and services, but they also produce people.”[7] People, as we see it, are the whole reason to have an economy. Their well-being is the most important end product of all. Sometimes policy makers, business analysts, and economists lose sight of this, and talk about people, especially workers, in terms of what they must sacrifice for the good of the economy, treating individuals as means rather than as ends in themselves.

Our lens on paid work differs from the standard economics model. In labor economics textbooks, paid employment generates what economists call disutility, meaning dissatisfaction. It is not something that we do voluntarily. This dissatisfaction has to be compensated by paying us to do something that has no intrinsic value for us. Our pay is then used to purchase goods and services that do bring us satisfaction. Work does not provide meaning in this view; “meaning” in economic life comes from the satisfaction of wants through consumption.[8] So when economists and others started doing research that categorized some jobs as “good jobs” and other jobs as “bad jobs,” they initially focused on how much the jobs paid, along with other monetary benefits. Bad jobs were jobs that did not allow someone to achieve the material standard of living that a particular society considers normal.

The literature on good jobs and bad jobs took off in the 1970s, as the U.S. service sector was rapidly expanding but the manufacturing sector was still seen as the nation’s economic heart.[9] Political economists such as Peter Doeringer and Michael Piore introduced an approach that they called dual labor market theory.[10] The idea behind dual labor markets was that the job market was divided between jobs in what they called the primary sector and the secondary sector. In the primary sector, good jobs were well paid and had career ladders. Secondary sector jobs were low paid and had lots of turnover and few opportunities for advancement. Economic restructuring, specifically the declining share of employment in the manufacturing sector and the increase in service-sector employment, was depicted as a declining primary sector and expanding secondary sector. This research was intended to correct an overemphasis on individual worker characteristics (supply) by analyzing the employer (demand) side of labor markets. In other words, how much you earn is not solely determined by how hard you work or the education and skills you acquire. Structural factors like the profitability of the industry, the degree of competition your employer faces, and whether the industry is unionized are equally important.

Over time, scholars came to recognize that many industries, especially in the service sector, include both high-wage and low-wage occupations. Attention turned to good jobs versus bad jobs within industries. Research on job quality also gradually moved beyond a narrow focus on financial compensation to explore other job characteristics. As more studies asked workers to rate what they valued in a job, investigators found that people themselves place tremendous value on job aspects such as autonomy, fulfillment, and ability to balance work and family—in addition to pay. Yet it seemed that the good characteristics clustered together in some jobs and the bad characteristics clustered in others. And it appeared that job quality was declining in the United States and other postindustrial economies.[11]

The focus on clustering of job characteristics led to the argument that jobs are segmented by race and gender. That is, good jobs and bad jobs are often allocated to individuals on the basis of the gender, race, and ethnicity of the worker.[12] Good jobs were still defined as breadwinner jobs with full-time pay and benefits that enabled the employee to support a family. These jobs were disproportionately allocated to white males. White women were channeled into jobs that supported mothering while racial and ethnic minorities found employment in jobs that required co-breadwinning because they did not pay family-sustaining wages. Eventually, feminist scholars challenged the idea that this was a two-step process: first a job is created and then there is a hierarchy in job allocation. Instead, feminists argued that job characteristics are shaped by employers’ expectations about the potential job-holders—that some jobs are created as male breadwinner jobs while others are designed for workers with family responsibilities, for example.

Dramatic changes in the U.S. labor force at the end of the twentieth century helped contribute to more rethinking about job quality. The workforce became increasingly diverse. Women, especially mothers with young children, were far more likely to be on the job due to a range of factors that pushed them and pulled them into paid employment. Discriminatory barriers to entry into nontraditional occupations were reduced—though of course not eliminated—for many groups of workers. New immigrants came in search of employment as well. The assumption that certain job characteristics are good regardless of who holds them was increasingly problematic. Instead, there was more attention to the differences among workers and their needs, dreams, and desires. Workers may hold different values, and social values may themselves change over time. Our interview informants confirm that job quality is a multi-dimensional concept and diverse employees define a good job in terms of their own life perspective.

Most importantly for our study, these diverse transformations have led scholars to conclude that job quality is not static. There are no intrinsically good jobs or bad jobs.[13] Jobs are continually in the process of being developed, defined, merged, and at times eliminated. Every time there is a change in job responsibilities, working conditions, the number or types of employees collaborating to accomplish a set of tasks, and, of course, the pay and benefits, a job is reconstructed. Even static wages, in a world of rising prices, change job quality. Jobs are shaped and reshaped by individuals, collective behavior, and institutions.

Business owners and their managers play a pivotal role in this process through all the decisions they make about hiring, promotions, and working conditions. They have to be attentive to the economic environment in which they operate, including competitors, financial markets, conditions in related industries, and their customer base. But they also make decisions on the basis of prevailing social norms, and sometimes even their own ethical standards and beliefs.[14] Employees themselves are not passive in this process—either as individuals or as members of unions. Politics and public policy also shape job quality. Employers and employees both jockey for influence in a political world where employers have more funding but employees have greater numbers. Citizens and broader communities view themselves as stakeholders in the kinds of jobs available, so they also seek a voice through political channels. All of these dynamics have played out in Atlantic City’s casino economy.

We met Laurel, a young grandmother in her fifties, through mutual friends. Laurel, a white high school graduate, has spent most of her career as a dealer at Caesars, after beginning at another casino. Her employer, Caesars Entertainment, is the second largest global casino operator, and currently the owner of four Atlantic City casinos (Caesars, Harrah’s, Bally’s, and Showboat). Like others in the industry, she was drawn in through family connections; her cousin was a dealer. Her first employer told her to attend dealer school and then tested her for assignment to the gaming floor. She remembers her first day: “They tell you to come in with black pants and a white blouse … then you go to the benefits office where you apply for the job and they take you to the casino floor and whatever games you have they’ll tell you, ‘Okay, jump into that game’ and they’ll watch you. Then you’ll do whatever other game you deal and they watch you and that’s how you get hired.” In casino parlance, it’s called an audition. They watch how you deal the game and how you deal with customers. Laurel wanted to deal craps because of the exciting, high-stakes action. Management told her she was too short for the craps pit and sent her to roulette at first. At that time in the early 1980s, it was more likely that they didn’t think a woman dealer belonged in craps. Think of the names of the dealers in any craps pit: a boxman, a stickman, and one or two base dealers, often called “croupiers” in European casinos.

When she moved to Caesars in the early 1990s, it was because Caesars had the best toke (tip) rate in town. To keep herself from being bored, Laurel learned new games and rotated among them, what are referred to as “carnival games” such as three-card poker, four-card poker, Let It Ride, Texas Hold’ Em, and Caribbean stud poker. These tend to have a higher edge for the house than regular games like blackjack or baccarat. She did not get paid a higher base wage for knowing more games, yet they made her a real asset to the casino. When we interviewed her she said, “so tonight, I’m going to Asia Poker in pit twelve.” Caesars promoted Laurel to a floorperson who watches or supervises games, but the job didn’t earn tips. She suffered a loss in income without tips, so she gave it up to return to full-time dealing “because I’m making more money dealing.”

There were some very good years for Laurel and other dealers in the industry. For example, she worked part-time for several years because she had young children, and her employer at the time offered benefits to part-timers. The flexibility helped her balance work and family. “It’s different now,” she said, referring to the aftermath of an acquisition of her longtime workplace, as well as Bally’s Atlantic City, by Harrah’s Entertainment in 2005. (The name of the parent corporation was changed to Caesars Entertainment soon thereafter because it had better brand appeal.) These days, it is difficult to secure a full-time dealer position at all if you are a new employee, because part-timers no longer get benefits. And casinos have been cutting benefits for full-timers, too. Venting her frustration with the new management dictates when we interviewed her in 2007, Laurel said: “They made our benefits horrible. I never had such bad benefits, like if you have to go in the hospital now it’s like you have a $1,500 deductible.” She added that the company also charged a lot more for benefits through paycheck deductions: “They went up sky high.” “And plus another thing they were doing is [the parent company] tried to weed away people that are making the most money,” meaning the senior, full-time dealers. Like Laurel. She was at the top rate of $8.50 base pay per hour and the rate for new hires was $4.00 per hour. Corporate, she felt, wanted to replace her with a lower-paid part-time employee. But when we spoke with her again in 2013, she was holding onto her job despite the pressure. In fact, she had become active in the new dealer’s union, and felt the grievance procedure was helping protect jobs. And get her more money, as she is now up to almost $10.00 an hour plus tips.

Zoe laughed as she repeated a line that she has uttered many times before: “I am fifty-two years old. I am not what corporate would think is the ideal cocktail waitress.” “Corporate,” in this case, also refers to Caesars Entertainment. A white woman who was born and raised in Atlantic City, Zoe is a “Day-Oner,” meaning that she helped open Resorts Casino Hotel in 1978, directly after graduating from high school. Her jobs, at various casinos and family-owned restaurants throughout the city until she settled at Showboat over twenty-five years ago, have helped her, along with her husband, raise three children. It has been, in her words, a “great job,” particularly for a working mother. While she joked about the fact that “To get the job you had to show up in a bikini,” she recognized that any job working with the public requires a lot of hidden skills: “You have to be able to talk to all sorts of people. You have to kind of head off conflict if you can, and not make conflict.”

Her job security, she said, has come from being a union member (Local 54 of UNITE HERE). Being a union member, however, has not prevented major changes in the way she does her work. Nor could it prevent Caesars Entertainment from announcing its intention to close Showboat one year after our interview, abruptly forcing her to look for a new line of work. As she took one of her rare days off in 2013 to talk with us, she observed that “One of the reasons why I’ve always done the job and liked the job and been involved in the job is because I liked interacting with the customers. I like, that’s part of, and I could always get a bigger tip out of somebody because I could schmooze them or whatever. And now that’s not … because I’m timed. I only have six minutes from the time the drink is ordered from the iPad to the time I deliver it—only six minutes.”

About three years ago, she indicated, management introduced a new system for ordering and serving free drinks for gamblers—the “iApp” system. The casino hired new employees, mostly younger, to walk up and down the casino floor with iPhones (now iPad minis) and take drink orders. Zoe described the process: “They’ll go up to you and say ‘Would you like a drink?’ And they would punch in the drink and I’m to wait in the bar, and the drink [order] is shot into the bar. The bartender makes the drink and it’s put in a row. And if it’s my turn, because I no longer have a station—it’s called the next tray where everybody just waits for their turn… . I take the next seven drinks out to the casino floor and serve them whether they are anywhere on the casino floor.” Because the customers for these seven drinks are spread out, “you are kind of like ping-ponging around a little bit instead of the traditional, the older way, where you would just go up and down your aisle or up around your one pit. Now you’re kind of like, darting around, kind of like The Hunger Games.” The new system saves the casino money: “What it’s done is shrunk the staff down. They don’t need as many people any longer. They don’t need as many cocktail servers.” Conversations with customers are eliminated. Not surprisingly, tips—which cocktail servers keep rather than pool with the others—have declined. And the cocktail waitresses, who used to be trained to monitor customers’ alcohol intake and cut them off when they had imbibed too much, can no longer keep track of how many drinks someone has had.

Terrence, a middle-aged African American man, also helped raise a family with his casino job. He is a huge fan of late senator and vice president Hubert Humphrey, especially because of the Minnesota senator’s work in developing the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) program. After dropping out of college in the 1970s, Terrence found himself, in his own words, “poor and destitute.” He did not have meaningful skills or experience, so he found himself in a “Catch 22 situation. Employees didn’t have the training to get the job, and the employers didn’t want to hire you because you needed experience.” CETA paid for job training while he worked in a public service job, but to qualify he had to go on public assistance which was a blow to his pride. Once in the program, he was faced with a choice between learning to deal blackjack or to service slot machines. Terrence chose to become a slot machine technician because he had read Alvin Toffler’s books, Future Shock and The Third Wave, and believed it was important to become comfortable with technology and technological change: “Primarily the thing I did the most, I think, for myself is I helped myself to feel comfortable around high technology.”

As Toffler would have predicted, the technology that Terrence was initially trained to fix has become obsolete. Slot machines no longer accept coins. Terrence described the changes on the job: “Well, day-to-day, right now, a typical day for me in a casino now, is almost kind of boring, as a matter of fact. Because the fact that [pause] due to the nature of the slot machines, right now, as they exist today. I theorized years ago, about fifteen or so years ago—I talked to one of the chief technicians—I told him that the slot machines of the future, or the casinos of the future, will require fewer and fewer technicians to service more and more slot machines.” He continued, “Why is that? Because of automation.”

Terrence graphically described the old system:

Okay, imagine if you will, a customer, here’s a typical customer walking through the casino. They’re walking through the casino; they pull money out of their wallets. They look for a change person who then sells them coins, from a cart, or from a booth. And then they put the coin, they got the coins, they start playing. They put the coins in the slot, they pull the handle. One, two, three, four. If [the coins] get stuck, you have to call somebody to unstick them. When they get a pay up, it pays out in coins. If that gets jammed, you get that. Most of the work that was done was done because it was a coin—basically, it’s a metal wafer that has to go inside the machine. It’s a bucket inside the machine, a hopper, that pays out a little hole in the bottom of the slot machine where excess coins go… . But it used up a tremendous amount of manpower, because somebody had to sell the coins, someone had to collect the coins. Someone had to pay the jackpot. Someone also had to fill the machine with money when it ran out. And it employed a tremendous amount of people.

In contrast, he described the current, coinless slot machines as akin to an automated teller machine at a bank:

Okay, now we’re gonna skip, go from that to what it is now. So, the customer puts a bill inside the machine, the machine gives them credits, they play, they get done, it spits out a ticket, you go to a window, you either get your cash or go to a machine and then use that. It eliminates the need to have a hard count team who collects the coins at the end of the night, a cashier who sells the coins, an attendant who has to attend the problems with the machines, and technicians, who fix the machines. Now there are fewer and fewer technicians. Hardly any slot attendants—where you used to have 130 slot attendants, now we have thirty. We used to have, at our place, about, at least 200 slot cashiers. Now we have maybe twenty. We used to have thirty-seven technicians; now we have maybe nineteen. But we still have 2,700 slot machines.

In order to appreciate the individual stories that casino workers tell, we need to better understand the industry and the city in which they work. The changing fortunes of casino gaming in the local and national economies are profoundly shaping the opportunities and experiences for the 30,000-plus workers in Atlantic City’s casinos and their compatriots across the United States. Changes in job security and job quality, such as the changes described by Laurel, Zoe, and Terrence, are often wrought by macroeconomic fluctuations of the nation’s economy that impact specific industries or groups of workers. Tight labor markets (meaning low unemployment rates) boost employees’ bargaining power while recessions and unemployment give employers the upper hand. Product demand is also affected by the macro economy. Gambling was long touted as a recession-proof industry, offering relatively cheap entertainment akin to movies during the Great Depression. The economic crisis of 2008, however, disproved this contention. Weighed down by debt and losing their nest eggs (house values and retirement accounts), middle-class consumers cut back. In an industry where line workers depend on tips for a good livelihood, shrinking demand has a direct and profound impact on living standards.

There are also microeconomic dynamics within particular industries, as businesses strive to increase their market power and operate as oligopolies or monopolies. Textbook economics extols models of “perfect competition,” that is, markets for products where many sellers compete to produce identical low-cost goods or services as efficiently as possible and sell them to buyers with perfect information about prices and quality. A rational business owner, however, abhors perfect competition. Political economists since Karl Marx have observed the constant striving for market power that leads businesses to consolidate and merge, differentiate their products, and externalize costs. In the mid-twentieth century, Joseph Schumpeter, who was both a champion of free-market capitalism and an admirer of Marx, embraced this dynamism, coining the term “creative destruction” to describe the process of innovation that can threaten the position of mature industries.[15] As entrepreneurs continuously seek to be the first out of the gate with the next new thing, they render existing product lines and production processes—or older casinos—obsolete. In contrast, Paul Sweezy and Paul A. Baran, radical critics of market economies, suggested that maturing industries will tend to concentrate in order to preserve their market power.[16] The consolidated market leaders use strategies such as cost cutting, product diversification, and lobbying for government favors to retain their position. Baran and Sweezy spurred a line of research starting in the 1960s on the economic and social impact of this drive toward monopolization, focusing on capitalism’s tendency toward stagnation and an incessant downward pressure on wages.[17]

These dynamics are clear in the contemporary casino gaming industry. But we need to review how we got to this point in the history of the industry. Nevada pioneered the modern era of casino gaming starting in the 1930s. Las Vegas, its casino mecca, was isolated in the desert, built relatively from scratch, and did not spark an immediate wave of imitators. Then Atlantic City ventured into the industry in the 1970s as the U.S. economy shifted from the Golden Age of postwar prosperity to the recent era of sluggish economic growth, deindustrialization, and income polarization. Atlantic City’s gamble with gaming was viewed as a success story that inspired other economically depressed areas. Casinos, it was thought, would bring jobs and tax revenues and enhance the economic development of surrounding communities.

Expansion of the industry nationwide started around 1989, about a decade after Atlantic City opened its first casino doors. Initially, gaming operations outside of New Jersey and Nevada were mostly situated on Native American reservations and riverboats. For example, the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, passed in 1988, created the structural framework for the operation and regulation of Indian gaming through the National Indian Gaming Commission and the U.S. Department of the Interior. Though Native American casinos are owned by the tribes, the day-to-day operations are often under contract with a commercial casino company.[18] Iowa’s riverboats started cruising in 1991, followed quickly by Illinois, Mississippi, Louisiana, and other states on the Mississippi River. Many of these casinos were positioned to draw revenue (for state governments as well as casinos) from population centers in neighboring states. This pattern drove the escalation in riverboat casinos, as states tried to recapture lost revenue.[19]

Sensing a new revenue stream, more and more states beckoned the industry onto dry land. A 1999 report by the National Gambling Impact Study Commission (created by the U.S. Congress) helped legitimate the industry, even as it pointed to the need for regulation and possible ensuing social problems. In its recommendations, the Commission noted that “especially in economically depressed communities, casino gambling has demonstrated the ability to generate economic development through the creation of quality jobs.” The Commission contrasted the job creation impact of casinos with the lack of economic development fostered by lotteries, Internet gambling, and non-casino electronic gaming devices.[20] Low- and middle-income communities latched onto the Atlantic City model. Casinos, racinos, and slot parlors gradually expanded into urban areas such as Detroit, Michigan (in 1999); Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (in 2010); and Cleveland, Ohio (in 2012).

Equally important for our study, ownership within the industry changed. Discovering a viable profit stream, non-gaming corporations absorbed casinos and casino companies starting in the 1990s, streamlining processes and changing the culture of these workplaces. The industry “moved out from the gray shadows of illegitimacy and [became] a major and visible presence on Wall Street and Main Street,” according to William Eadington, director of the Institute for the Study of Gambling and Commercial Gaming at the University of Nevada, Reno.[21] First firms from other hospitality sectors, including hotel chains like Hilton, moved into the casino gaming industry. Eventually, as with other sectors of the U.S. economy, private equity firms and other financial speculators sought a stake in this booming business. Table 1.1 lists the twelve casinos in the Atlantic City market and their ownership in 2013.

Atlantic City’s Twelve Casinos and Their Ownership as of 2013



The Atlantic Club Casino Hotel

Colony Capital LLC

Bally’s Atlantic City

Caesars Entertainment, Inc.

Borgata Hotel, Casino, & Spa

Marina District Development Company, LLC

Caesars Atlantic City

Caesars Entertainment, Inc.

Golden Nugget—Atlantic City*

Landry’s, Inc.

Harrah’s Resort Atlantic City

Caesars Entertainment, Inc.

Resorts Casino Hotel



Revel AC, Inc.

Showboat Atlantic City

Caesars Entertainment, Inc.

Tropicana Casino and Resort

Tropicana Entertainment, Inc.

Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino

Trump Entertainment Resorts

Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort

Trump Entertainment Resorts

*The casino now using this name is unrelated to the Golden Nugget that opened in 1980. Source: New Jersey Casino Control Commission website (accessed June 4, 2013).

Employees felt the change. Ken, a dual-rate pit manager who has worked in the industry in Atlantic City since he got a job soon after graduating from college in the early 1980s,[22] responded to a question about ownership changes:

Claridge is a very small, tight-knit community. It was the smallest casino in town. When we were first taken over by Bally’s, we were merged with them, and Bally’s was such a large property, it’s like going from working at Wawa [a regional chain of convenience stores] to working at Walmart. There is so many people, and it’s such a large operation. It’s just like you come from everybody knowing who you are to nobody knows who you are. So it was quite a culture shock. Because I worked with most of these people for over twenty years… . Lately the changes have been bad.

Echoing Laurel, Ken complained that the “faceless” corporation was cutting corners and squeezing workers at the lower levels while upper-level managers kept their perks and bonuses. In his words, “now the bean counters are running the corporations instead of actually casino management.”

All of these macroeconomic and microeconomic forces have shaped the work experiences of the workers we interviewed. The full force of these macro and micro shifts are generally experienced at the meso level, the analytical level of organizations, institutions, and social practices.[23] As we saw above, Ken feels the microeconomic changes in ownership in his daily life in the organization. So do Laurel, Zoe, Terrence, and the other workers we interviewed. This level of analysis is too often ceded by economists to other social sciences such as sociology and anthropology. Without understanding the meso level—the lived experience of an economy—we have an incomplete picture. Most crucially, an overemphasis on political and economic dynamics can risk overlooking the collective and individual agency of those working inside the casino economy. The folks we spoke with were not passive victims of impersonal forces. They were actively building lives and constructing meaning out of the raw material provided, in part, by their jobs.

Meso-level analysis informs this study. In order to examine the lived experience of working in a casino economy and how these jobs and these workers have been affected by and responded to macroeconomic and microeconomic trends, we conducted two waves of in-depth interviews with thirty-five current and former employees in Atlantic City’s casinos. Collectively, the employees have amassed over 550 years of experience in the Atlantic City casinos. The first wave of interviews took place from late 2006 through the summer of 2008, the period leading up to the Great Recession. We returned to interviewing in 2011,[24] and completed the second wave of interviews in 2014. A few interviewees were revisited to update their experiences as the industry and their lives changed. The interviews were supplemented by extensive reading and monitoring of journalistic accounts of the local and national industry, a review of research about the casino industry by scholars, industry analysts, and policy advocates, and hundreds of informal conversations with local residents, as well as our own theoretical and empirical understanding of labor market dynamics.

As is typical for qualitative research, we did not commence the study with a set of hypotheses to test, but rather a general sense of themes and questions based upon extensive prior research. The interviews were loosely structured around a set of open-ended questions.[25] The questions in our survey instrument reflected our reading of the interdisciplinary literature on job quality.[26] The first assumption we made was that work itself can be a source of satisfaction. In fact, meaningful and challenging work can enhance one’s identity, self-esteem, and dignity as well as intellectual and creative development, and establish a sense of community—an esprit de corps—at the workplace. The second, related assumption was that employees, through their time and effort, are not simply inputs into the production process. We construct our lives and our identities partially through the (paid and unpaid) work we do and how we do it. The well-being of the people is just as important an output as the goods and services being produced.

The interviews were digitally recorded and then transcribed, changing the names of the participants and omitting names of coworkers (but not casino owners) and customers. Occasionally, we have altered or obscured biographical details in order to protect the confidentially of our sources. Our aim was not to generate a random sample but rather to target representative constituencies. We sought to include employees in a variety of occupations, emphasizing the key frontline workers with direct contact with casino customers. We balanced our sample with employees from different casinos that had various marketing strategies and types of ownership, people from key racial and ethnic groups in the Atlantic City population, and men and women with different household structures and sexual identities.

In New Jersey, about 40-45 percent of casino employees work exclusively on the gaming floor—dealers, their direct supervisors, slot technicians, and casino hosts. Security and surveillance constitutes another 7-10 percent. The term “casino key employees” refers to most managers, another 3-4 percent of employees. Casino employees and casino key employees must be licensed. Back-of-the-house employees do not need a license or regulatory approval. Casino service and back-of-the-house jobs, serving the gaming floor in restaurants and bars and in the hotels, are roughly another third of total Atlantic City casino employees. The remaining jobs are in maintenance and construction, entertainment, administrators not on the gaming floor, and other miscellaneous positions.

Early on, we determined that our participants would be more comfortable if we could clearly indicate that we had neither sought nor received cooperation from their employers. We did, however, contact staff and activists with two of the key labor unions, Local 54 of UNITE HERE (representing employees involved in hotel and restaurant services) and United Auto Workers Region 9 (representing dealers at three casinos) for background information including contract language. A few interviews were with union activists, balanced by one dissident activist and many other employees with little direct union involvement. Interviews were conducted outside of work hours, in participants’ homes or at a neutral site. We never approached anyone at their work. Supplemental stories gathered from public sources such as newspaper articles use real names if they were printed in the story.

All of the interview transcripts were printed and then coded by the coauthors. The coding focused on identifying extracts that articulated perspectives on key issues related to the broad themes. As we read and coded, the scope and stance of the research was continually refined. The result was an iterative process of synthesizing our primary and secondary sources. In particular, we benefited by comparing our own findings and interpretations with other second-hand accounts of casino employment. We quote and paraphrase from the interviews throughout these chapters. When we do, we have tried to retain the original phrasing and sentence structure, while eliminating linguistic fillers such as “um” and “eh.” Punctuation denotes our best representation of the length of pauses and other verbal signals.

Starting from our own view of the economy as a system for providing for well-being and listening to our participants, we developed a broad definition of job quality:

A good job is one that helps you create a life and reinforces a positive sense of identity.

Creating a life includes provisioning for the material needs of an employee and his or her family through wages and benefits. This aspect of job quality is commonly the focus of most economists. The Final Report of the National Gambling Impact Study Commission in 1999 noted that, “resort, hotel, and commercial casinos”—the sector of the legalized gaming industry most closely identified with Atlantic City—“provide jobs with good pay and benefits.”[27] The extensive testimony gathered by the commission went on further to declare: “Hundreds of employees in several cities described the new and better jobs they had obtained with the advent of casinos. Some described relocating from other states to the sites of new casinos; others spoke of leaving minimum-wage jobs in which they had no benefits, to accept unionized jobs at the casinos at higher compensation and with significant employment opportunities.”[28] The majority of casino jobs are open to workers without a college education, providing an important opportunity in the contemporary economy where it is harder and harder to earn a living without some postsecondary schooling.

In terms of job quality, the commission found that casino jobs in destination resorts were “better than comparable service sector jobs.”[29] This is borne out by local data as well. According to a New Jersey Department of Labor 2013 fact book about Atlantic County,[30] a county that includes Atlantic City and its surrounding communities, “Interestingly, leisure and hospitality is the only sector where Atlantic County’s average annual wage significantly exceeded the statewide average annual wage ($29,173 vs. $22,265 respectively) in 2011. The county’s higher annual wage can be traced to the gaming industry’s unionized hotel and restaurant workers, higher tipping rates and a greater proportion of higher paying jobs compared to similar nongaming establishments.” Many participants in our study indicated that they were gratified by the financial opportunity the industry provided—especially at the entry level. Over time, however, some people became frustrated by truncated career ladders and stagnant base wages. The fact that so many workers’ income relies upon tips (pooled among dealers and individually for most servers and housekeepers) means that their take-home pay is particularly vulnerable to shifts in demand for their employers’ product. And, as we have seen in the stories above, the working conditions and benefits are deteriorating as Atlantic City’s casinos respond to competitive pressures from other jurisdictions.

Beyond wages and benefits, good jobs support workers’ family and community activities. “Work-life balance” and other popular catchphrases are meant to capture the attention of policy makers and advocates. Because workers have a variety of living situations, family responsibilities, and ties to volunteer, religious, union, or other social networks, the relationship between their paid employment and the other facets of their lives is very complex. And, as we found, these living situations and priorities can change dramatically over the arc of a career. The dominant work-life issue among our participants was the difficulty of synchronizing schedules in a twenty-four-hour service economy. Further, a good job cannot diminish your life, meaning health and safety can also be seen as job quality dimensions. Many of our participants’ nagging health problems such as sore feet, bad backs, carpal tunnel syndrome, and maladies related to second-hand smoke meant that their job was encroaching on their enjoyment of life.

Finally, we note that a good job is one that reinforces a meaningful identity. No one we spoke with viewed their job as only a means to a paycheck. At minimum, the people we interviewed valued work situations that afforded them respect and dignity as individuals. They wanted to be recognized when they did their jobs well. Some found meaning in their relationships at work—either the process of collaborating with coworkers or ongoing interactions with regular customers who recognized their hard work. The casino workers who enjoyed their jobs emphasized their ability to bring excitement into the lives of their customers. Nevertheless, some casino workers struggled uncomfortably with their feelings about the industry, particularly with the problem gamblers they saw and came to know. The increased sexualization of employees in recent years also made it difficult for some to maintain their sense of dignity. These factors ultimately led a few to make casino work a temporary means of furthering their education so that they could enter other fields where they felt they could contribute to society. Others felt trapped with little to no way to effectively exit.

The three dimensions of job quality identified—pay and benefits, work-life balance, and building an identity—are further illustrated as we explore how our participants are building their lives in an industry experiencing dramatic changes. Their keen insights and articulate observations provide a richness to the narrative within each chapter. In addition, between each chapter of the book, we will introduce you to at least one of the workers in more depth. In the chapters that follow, we seek to provide context for their stories, relying upon our expertise as political economists. While the resulting account of this changing industry incorporates facts and figures as well as history and theory, it is the participants’ stories that ground our portrayal in the lived experience of working inside a casino economy.


American Gaming Association, 2013 State of the States: The AGA Survey of Casino Entertainment (Washington, DC: AGA, 2013).


Harold L. Vogel, Entertainment Industry Economics: A Guide for Financial Analysis, 8th ed. (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 424.


The U.S. share is based on our calculations using industry market value as estimated by Datamonitor. Industry data is from Datamonitor, Global Casinos & Gaming, Reference Code 0199-2019 (New York: Datamonitor USA, May 2011), and Casinos & Gaming in the United States, Reference Code 0072-2019 (New York: Datamonitor USA, May 2011).


American Gaming Association, 2011 State of the States, 2.


American Gaming Association, 2013 State of the States, 18.


See Deborah M. Figart, “Social Responsibility for Living Standards: Presidential Address, Association for Social Economics, 2007,” Review of Social Economy 65, no. 4 (2007): 391-405; and Deborah M. Figart and Ellen Mutari, “Work: Its Social Meanings and Role in Provisioning,” in The Elgar Companion to Social Economics, ed. John B. Davis and Wilfred Dolfsma (Aldershot, England: Edward Elgar, 2008), 287-301.


William M. Dugger, “Redefining Economics: From Market Allocation to Social Provisioning,” in Political Economy for the 21st Century: Contemporary Views on the Trend of Economics, ed. Charles J. Whalen (Armonk, NY: Sharpe, 1996), 36.


Neoclassical labor economists have made many amendments and modifications of this core concept. The disutility argument, however, remains the theoretical starting point.


For a more detailed review of this literature, see Figart and Mutari, “Work: Its Social Meanings and Role in Provisioning,” 287-301.


Peter B. Doeringer and Michael J. Piore, Internal Labor Markets and Manpower Analysis (Lexington, MA: Heath, 1971).


Chris Tilly, “Arresting the Decline of Good Jobs in the USA?” Industrial Relations Journal 28, no. 4 (1997): 269-74.


Randy Albelda and Robert Drago, Unlevel Playing Fields: Understanding Wage Inequality and Discrimination, 4th ed. (Boston: Economic Affairs Bureau, 2013).


Chris Warhurst, Françoise Carré, Patricia Findlay, and Chris Tilly, Are Bad Jobs Inevitable? Trends, Determinants and Responses to Job Quality in the Twenty-First Century (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).


Julie A. Nelson, Economics for Humans (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006).


Joseph Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy (1942; repr., New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2008).


Paul Sweezy, in fact, was a student of Schumpeter’s at Harvard University.


For an excellent summary and update of this work, see John Bellamy Foster, “Monopoly Capital at the Turn of the Millennium,” Monthly Review 51, no. 11 (2000): 1-18.


American Gaming Association, U.S. Commercial Casino Industry: Facts at Your Fingertips (Washington, DC: AGA, 2009).


John Lyman Mason and Michael Nelson, Governing Gambling (New York: Century Foundation, 2001).


National Gambling Impact Study Commission, NGISC Report Recommendations (Washington, DC, 1999), accessed January 20, 2006, See also Mason and Nelson, Governing Gambling.


William R. Eadington, “Preface,” in The Business of Gaming: Economic and Management Issues, ed. William R. Eadington and Judy A. Cornelius (Reno, NV: Institute for the Study of Gambling and Commercial Gaming, 1999), xviii.


Dual rate jobs are transitional positions between steps in the career ladder. Dual rates may work partly as regular dealers and partly as floor supervisors each week, being paid at different rates for the hours in each position. There are also dual rates, like Ken, who rotate between two supervisory positions: floor supervisor and pit boss.


Social practices are patterns of behavior that express norms and beliefs, especially about collective identities such as gender, race, ethnicity, and class. Anthropologist Sherry Ortner refers to them as “motivated, organized, and socially complex ways of going about life in particular times and places.” Social theorists are attentive to social practices because they reveal the meaning behind institutionalized behavior. Prevailing social practices are embedded in social structures, but are also contested and altered by the collective behavior of different social groups. See Sherry B. Ortner, Making Gender: The Politics and Erotics of Culture (Boston: Beacon, 1996), 12.


Three members of one family were interviewed in 2009.


The research process and instrument was approved by the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey Institutional Review Board and followed the practices and recommendations of the federal Collaborative Institutional Training Initiative.


Note that ours is a study of jobs and job quality, not a broader study of the quality of life of casino employees. A larger study would include additional variables such as health care, crime, poverty rates, arts and recreation, access to transportation, and education, as well as jobs.


National Gambling Impact Study Commission, Final Report, 7-1.


National Gambling Impact Study Commission, Final Report, 7-4.


National Gambling Impact Study Commission, Final Report, 7-8.


NJ Department of Labor and Workforce Development, County Community Fact Book: Atlantic County Edition (Trenton, 2013), 8, accessed March 1, 2014,

SueBee’s Story

SueBee is a tall, fit, fifty-something woman with pale skin and a gentle soul. She invites us to her home to talk about her life and her work. She started working at the Golden Nugget casino as a dealer in 1980 and left in 2007 when she took a severance package to retire from her position as a pit boss. We take off our shoes as we enter, then she guides us into her cozy living room with a Ganesh mural on the wall. These days, she is a yoga instructor and massage therapist. The entry to the massage room just off the living room welcomes you with a piece of framed art: a black-and-white charcoal of a young woman in a yoga pose, “the dancer” (natarajasana).

As we settle into comfy chairs with cups of herbal tea and turn on the digital recorder, SueBee begins her story of how she came to work as a dealer: “Prior to [working in the casino], I had lived in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, where I had a multitude of different jobs, from a baker to stonemason, to food server—let me see—lab technician, a multitude of jobs. And I was tired of working two to three jobs and not making any money; and the casino industry opened, and my younger sister’s boyfriend at the time had gotten a job and was working at Resorts when Resorts first opened. So, in 1978, I started to travel down and look at the city and look at the job situation and go into Resorts and see what it was like. And I decided that I needed to do this.” She relocated to New Jersey and moved in with a sister who lived within commuting distance of Atlantic City. To support herself, she worked as a waitress while attending gaming school. Once she obtained her blackjack license, SueBee tried for a job at the newly opened Caesars, but they would not hire her as a dealer. To get her foot in the door, she took a job selling change around the slot machines.

When the Golden Nugget was ready to open, she went for three auditions and failed each one: “I don’t know what their criteria was but I had the same guy audition me every single time. So I was adamant that I can do this job. I don’t understand why I’m not getting hired, and I made an appointment with the … casino manager, VP, something like that. I walked into his office and I said I have had three auditions. I don’t understand what the problem is. I know I can do this job. I know I’m going to be a great employee for you. And we sat and had a forty-five minute conversation. He was very receptive. And he said, ‘OK, no problem, show up and you’ve got the job’. So, he hired me on the spot.”

At the time, the Golden Nugget was owned by casino pioneer Steve Wynn. He was a good employer. She was acutely aware that the casino job offered her good wages, especially for someone who started working right out of high school: “Oh, I made more money than I ever thought I would ever make in my life. I was a high school graduate… . My parents could never have afforded to send me to college, and I just wanted to go out and explore the world. I wanted to go and live a life and get out of school.” One evening, SueBee went out with a bunch of friends from work and met up with employees from other casinos. A workmate whispered in her ear: “Don’t tell them you work at the Nugget because these people are really jealous; everyone wants to work at the Nugget.” She laughs as she tells the story, saying at the time she was oblivious to that kind of energy. But she realized it was true. They were making the most money, were treated the best, and, “obviously, had the most fun.”

As she talks, she remembers the hectic early days of opening the new casino and the positive relationship between management and the newly hired staff: “In the beginning, it was really hard. You didn’t get a day off. Some people worked sixty days in a row without a day off. It was only twenty [operating] hours [per day] when we first opened, so we were working ten- and twelve-hour shifts. So it was not uncommon to work sixty-two hours in a week or more. You know, it was pretty intense.” The hard work didn’t feel like work, though, because they were all in it together. And they felt appreciated.

Within two years, SueBee was promoted to a supervisor, a full-time floorperson. Soon after, Steve Wynn gave everyone in management a brand-new car. As she recalls, it had to be American made and she could spend up to $10,000. “I forget how many cars he bought, but there was a fleet of cars that went out, and I know some people who wrecked their cars and he gave them another one.” We pause her story to ask her who was eligible for the cars: “Supervisors. Floorpeople, supervisors from ‘floor’ up. And I’m sure that the amount of money that you could spend on the car went up with your position and salary… . Oh my God! It was a gift! It was such a gift! I never owned a new car. I kept that car for almost twenty years.” She reminisces more about how it felt to be treated like a valued employee, to bond with her coworkers, and to experience new things.

SueBee relates the details of her daily work life. But as the interview moves into the second hour, the tone of the story subtly begins to shift. It was clear that the party atmosphere wore thin over time, and the downsides of the job began to weigh on her being: “I was thinking, as everybody else was thinking, that this place is killing me. And it wasn’t just the cigarette smoke. If you go into a casino, back then, there was a lot more business on the casino floor. But your senses, all of your senses, were being bombarded. There was no natural light, there were no windows to take your attention away, there was a slot machine noise that was deafening—not just the coins falling into the metal tray, which was purposely done, but the music that each little slot machine would play. Even when you pulled the handle, there was noise with the reel going around. And then there was the music that they played over the loudspeaker system. And then there were interruptions in that, with the operators calling for somebody to pick up the phone. It was constant. So, it was a really caustic place to work. But when you begin, all those things are there, and all those things are put into play to create an atmosphere of excitement. So when you first start to work, it’s exciting: ‘I’m at the party; I’m at the disco; I’m at the place where everything was happening.’ I mean, I remember it would take me ten minutes to get from the baccarat pit, to the door, up to the second floor, to get to the break room—because you would have to fight your way through the crowd on the casino floor to get to that door. It was amazing! It was just not like a walk. You didn’t just walk; you were, like, thumping into people, shoulder to shoulder, getting around people, weaving in and out, and you had to stop and take your time.”

There were other stresses in the work environment for her as a self-described naïve young girl from a farm, and they affected her perceptions of the job. As the years passed, she witnessed changes in herself. When she arrived, she “Never drank, never smoked, never cursed, you know, was not around rude, ignorant people. So, it was a big eye opener.” She recounted sexual harassment experiences by some of her supervisors that upset her. “I remember standing at a blackjack game, and I had a skirt on. It was not short. I was not promiscuous. My skirt was like Catholic school; if you kneeled on the floor and your skirt touched the floor, you were good. That’s how I wore my skirts. And I had a supervisor and I dropped a card, I dropped a chip, I dropped something. And the supervisor bent down to pick up the chip and had my leg, around my ankle, with his other hand. And as he stood up, he rode up my leg with his hand, and I was frozen. I was just, I was on a live game, I was dealing and everything just kind of stopped. And I froze, and he stopped when he got to my knee and threw the chip on the table and said something about what great legs I had or laughing and … I was just like, I couldn’t speak! I was flabbergasted! I was like, ‘Did that guy just do that?!’ I was stunned. I was stunned. I didn’t know what to say or do.” Blatant sexual advances were common. As she notes, half of the come-ons were from married men. She had grown up in a family of mostly women so for her “men were always an education.” SueBee viewed these experiences as part of her education process, part of coming of age as a woman. Other casino women we spoke with coped with overt and subtle harassments from customers, supervisors, and coworkers in different ways, but most tended to downplay their experiences—perhaps because they needed to in order to survive.

As SueBee tells her story, she describes the transformation she has witnessed to the industry, both while she was there and since she left. She is particularly struck by the effects of deregulation, cost cutting, and cutbacks. Just the previous week, she read a newspaper story about a problem at an Atlantic City casino where cards were being counted by players. Casinos had taken to purchasing pre-shuffled boxes of cards to speed along the games. In this case, the card manufacturer had not pre-shuffled the cards. The players caught on and took the casino for a lot of money. SueBee is horrified at such practices, which she takes as an affront to the professionalism of dealers: “That’s hard for me to believe that the card company shuffles the cards and they come that way in the box? Never.” With pride, she details the intricacies of shuffling back in her day. Listening to her, it is clear that the pursuit of efficiency is contributing to “deskilling” the job—a process that political economists have long argued undermines job quality.

As she puts it about her career at her own “house,” “I never actually left the building; other owners bought the building and came in… . It definitely changed after Steve Wynn left. It was not [one big happy family anymore]; you were part of a big corporation.” Cutbacks in supervisory employees had started even before she left. Supervisors who once watched two to four games were responsible for six to eight or even more. By the time she left her job as a pit manager, there were periods, if only half an hour, that she was watching the whole casino floor because the shift manager had pulled the other pit manager to do something else. As she was called upon to supervise a larger area, she felt the work suffered. “You couldn’t watch the games, which was really something that I enjoyed doing when I first got my pit job. And I can’t tell you how many people I caught cheating, how many dealers were caught taking money off the tables, how many card counters, how many mistakes you can catch when you are walking around as a pit manager.” In her mind, cutting back on supervisors is a short-sighted managerial practice. “To know where the money is” was the most important part of the job, critical in order to keep good faith with the customers. Without such assurances, “the quality of customer service, the integrity of the games, is just disappearing,” she asserts. This will backfire, she argues, as customers will eventually perceive the difference. “And evidently, the companies that own these casinos aren’t really concerned about that.”

Once earnest and anxious to go for promotions to higher-level jobs, SueBee found that the changing corporate culture affected her own aspirations. In her words, she didn’t “feel safe” with the new owners (Bally’s, which was later purchased by Hilton). She was also relatively newly married and did not want to be forced to change her shift or be on call as it would interfere with her routine dinners and private time with her husband. Eventually, the job insecurity brought about by multiple ownership changes coupled with the accumulated wear and tear on her well-being led her to leave.

When asked about moments on the job when she felt proud, she comes up with a notable act of bravery: “It’s really hard in that business to, for me personally anyway, it was a really, there was nothing socially redeeming about the job—nothing! I guess after about ten years it really started to get to me as far as what I did for a living—how I was not really contributing to the betterment of humanity, how I was really working all of the time with the dregs of the earth. And gosh, my proudest moment was probably, oh boy, I hate to say, when I raised my hand in a meeting and said I would take a retirement package and started to progress to really leave my job. Because as difficult as that was to do, I’ll never forget it.”

As SueBee describes her last day at work, she begins to choke up—about the coworkers she was sorry to leave and the new managers that she wasn’t going to miss: “But the day that I, the last day I was there, that was really emotional. It was very—and it was so funny to watch people around me. The dealers and the floorpeople, some of them would just walk by the pit crying and they, like, wouldn’t come in. Others would come in and hug me and give me presents. (I’m getting emotional.) I mean, I walked out, there was so many beautiful gifts and heartfelt cards and words and a lot of disbelief. Literally, people couldn’t speak to me. But when I left, I didn’t—everyone was like, ah you should go around to all the pits. And, I was like, ‘Aw, please, it’s all I can do to get out the door!’ There was not a shift manager, there was not a casino manager: no one in upper management to say goodbye. I just walked out the door. I remember I got out the door and I was standing at Boston and Pacific [Avenues] and I thought, oh my God I’ve done it [laughing]. And it just, I took the deepest breath and I remember it was a gorgeous day. It was a September day and it was just so beautiful. And I stood on the corner and waited for the Jitney to speed in front of me and try to kill me with its rear-view mirror. And I just laughed and crossed the street, went to my designated parking spot … and pulled out and left and just breathed an exhale and I never looked back. I’ve never regretted it and I don’t think I ever will.”