Dealing with Change - Just One More Hand: Life in the Casino Economy (2015)

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

Chapter 4

Dealing with Change

In the olden days of casino gaming in the city, the message to employees was simple: For the customers to have a good time, you need to have a good time, too. The customers were taken care of by the casino hosts and other frontline casino employees. The frontline employees were taken care of by the shift managers and casino managers, guided by the managerial philosophy of the casino owners and presidents, like Steve Wynn at the Golden Nugget. SueBee remembers getting ready to open up the Golden Nugget. “I will never forget going to a meeting, a general meeting, all of the dealers, everyone, before we opened and Steve Wynn got up on the stage and told us how proud he was of us and told us that he wanted us to go out and have a good time. Just go have a good time. Don’t worry about anything. There’s nothing you can’t do that we can’t fix. So don’t worry about it. You go out and have a good time. You let people know you are having a good time and you enjoy their company as well.” It was a party. Management wanted a party atmosphere.

In fact, Wynn built employee morale by throwing regular parties for employees, parties that lasted twenty-four hours, through three work shifts. “We would have a Christmas party every year and I just cannot imagine the money he must have spent on that,” Sue Bee said. “There were Christmas parties. There were Halloween parties. I’m trying to remember what other occasions there were, but maybe he just called them holiday parties. But I remember shrimp bigger than my hands! And when the bowl was getting low, they would just put more in it. I have never experienced anything like that. I had never experienced that kind of abundance for an employee. There were prizes. At the time, I remember the first few parties, everything was open bar, and you are talking about a lot of people in every department—maybe 3,000 people and their spouses, their significant others. It was pretty amazing and this was a party that went on because of the nature of the business; it went on for twenty to twenty-four hours. It was pretty amazing to watch. I won a color TV once at one of our Halloween parties; I never owned a color TV!” Steve Wynn would ensure that he spent some time at the parties, at least once per shift, so that he could mingle and his employees could see him face to face, up close and personal.

SueBee put in almost thirty years working her way up the ladder on the casino floor. After Steve Wynn sold the Nugget property to Bally’s Entertainment Corporation in 1987 and it was renamed Bally’s Grand Casino Hotel, the job gradually turned out to be far less fun and far more nerve-wracking. The casino was becoming so corporate. Working weekends and holidays had become grueling—too many birthdays, graduations, funerals, picnics, and family events missed. Sex, drugs, alcohol, and offensive customers had taken their toll. Allergies, coughs, colds, lung problems—watching a friend die from COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease). The hopes for the city of Atlantic City went unfulfilled, she said. When management was cutting staff and offered a $60,000 severance payment in cash, she walked away. After almost thirty years, she just walked away.

Like SueBee, many casino employees we met now have a love-hate relationship with their jobs. But when the longtime employees talk about the old days, they express more love than hate. Early on, the growing casinos enticed job applicants to jump in from other industries and join the party. Employees recruited their own relatives from near and far—from towns in Atlantic County to cities in Latin America and Asia—to join the “family business.” With only about one in five Atlantic County adults possessing a college degree, the money was good for workers with a high school diploma or some college. That’s what we heard over and over again. In the early days, it was a living wage. Think about comparable entry-level service jobs: fast food server, retail cashier, janitor, and home health aide. These jobs pay very low wages. For the first generation of dealers and other casino employees in Atlantic City, real income increased for many years, even in the face of declining real income for service sector workers throughout the state and the nation.

Now, second generation descendants of casino employees have been joined by new immigrants. After three decades of gaming, Atlantic City area residents no longer believe the rosy depictions of job opportunities offered by casino work. Business is down. Employment has been falling. With less business, dealer income has suffered due to a huge loss in tips. And the work process has sped up, as fewer employees are covering more and more gaming tables. Casinos are hiring fewer full-time dealers to avoid paying benefits at all; in fact, some casino houses are trying to replace their more senior, higher-paid, full-time dealers with part-timers. Several employees relayed frustration that long-established benefits were being taken away. Dealers, like workers in other industries, are paying a rising share of their health care costs. Contributions to retirement plans are declining. Penalties for taking sick days (based on a disciplinary point system) were increased. The rate of increase in annual raises has declined.

In what follows, we describe the working lives of dealers and their supervisors in the gaming pits. The employees we interviewed told us about the qualifications and hiring process for the jobs, opportunities for career mobility, daily job tasks and working conditions, compensation and benefits, and interactions with customers and coworkers. The unique aspects of dealing poker are covered separately. Then we turn to the maze of thousands of dinging and flashing slot machines and video poker machines that take up much of the casino floor and account for the majority of gaming revenue. Employees who tend to the machines are less visible than dealers, but no less important, despite their dwindling numbers. We highlight the impact of cost-cutting measures in transforming job quality for these employees.

The table games on the casino floor are staffed and run by a team of dealers and other licensed casino employees. The teamwork among competent coworkers is one of the best parts of the job for many. In addition, they get to meet people from all walks of life and from all over the globe. Each dealer’s work is overseen by several layers of supervisors as well as the security staff who monitor the surveillance cameras. Until recently, teams of state regulators were also a visible presence, but their numbers have been cut drastically. While the dealers staff the front line, interacting with gamblers—taking bets and giving payouts—supervisors watch for problems and help customers with issues related to comps.

The jobs that comprise the typical career ladder on the casino floor are displayed in figure 4.1. Upon a successful audition, you start as a dealer. Progression was more streamlined in the earlier days of casino gaming, as there were fewer increments. You could get promoted directly to floorperson (or floor supervisor, as they are called in some casinos), an entry-level supervisor of table games. Once a floorperson, you gave up tips. As you moved up, you sometimes had to sacrifice income in hopes of upward career mobility.

Typical Career Ladder for the Casino Floor

Casinos invented “dual rate” positions as a hybrid job between job rungs. Job ladders now progress from dealer to dual rate floor, a position in which the employee is a part-time dealer and a part-time floorperson watching over the games. The term dual rate signifies different hourly pay for shifts dealing or on the floor. When dealing, you are eligible for tips. When “flooring,” you are not. Your work week, or even work shift, can be split between dealing and flooring. Dual rate workers are included in the bargaining units; in other words, in a unionized workplace, theirs are union jobs. This arrangement enables the casino to try out a dealer’s supervisory skills, and a dealer to try moving up without giving up tips completely.

The next rung on the ladder is pit boss, although once again it is possible to work as a dual rate pit, spending part of your week flooring. Pit bosses supervise entire gaming pits where dealers and floorpersons work at eight to ten tables each. Rating players for comps is also the responsibility of the pit boss, though the system is now more automated than it was when the casinos first opened. Consequently, some casinos have completely eliminated the pit boss position, removing a key rung in the career ladder and heaping more work on the floor supervisors. Looser regulations made this possible.

Each work shift on the gaming floor then has two or three shift managers and assistant shift managers, depending on the size of the casino. Shift managers are the ultimate arbiters of problems on the casino floor: alleged cheating, miscounts, misdeals of cards, and ejecting customers. The job titles above this level vary (vice president or director of this and that) and are held by upper-level managers. At some point in the hierarchy, management of gaming operations includes both table games and the slot machines/video poker. (Hotel operations are separate.) A 2003 study of twenty-four large casinos, including eleven in Atlantic City, found that women had much more difficulty breaking through the glass ceiling in gaming management positions than managerial jobs in hotel or food service operations.[1]

Forgoing tips makes sense only if you keep moving up. Some of the workers we interviewed moved up the ladder to dual rate pit boss or even higher, like Ken, SueBee, Patrice, and Robin. We spoke with other dealers who tried taking promotions to dual rate floorperson or full-time floorperson, but who then stepped back to dealing—not just for the money but to escape the stresses of lower-level management. Laurel, Caroline, and Isiah, for example, decided supervisory work was not for them. Graciela was a dual rate pit boss but returned to part-time floorperson in order to go back to college. Emil eschewed even trying to move up in the first place.

Being a supervisor is becoming more of a hassle. Casinos keep upping the number of tables that floorpersons supervise from two or three at a time to as many as six or eight; some employees even reported ten or twelve. Donna, a floorperson and former craps dealer, insisted that a supervisor can only accurately watch one craps table at a time. “Who can really watch what’s going on at all of these tables?” was a common refrain. The unfortunate result, according to one manager we interviewed, is more mistakes and therefore more unhappy customers. The same manager admired the Borgata for not skimping on levels of supervision, and consequently earning higher ratings from customers.

To get a job dealing table games, the casino needs to have a job opening, and then you come in for an audition. A casino manager puts you into various games on the floor and watches you very closely, with another dealer or supervisor nearby. It can be nerve-wracking. “Don’t be nervous” goes through your head. “Don’t sweat.” “Count the cash and chips correctly.” You try not to shake, though your hands seem to fumble more than when you practiced at home. Experienced dealers are proud of the way they shuffle cards, spread the deck or decks for view, and reveal the cards. A lot of tension and excitement ensues as cards are revealed. It’s called “squeezing the cards.” Dealers try to make it fun. And the squeeze is as unique as the dealer, from a simple bend-turn or bend-flip to the more dazzling rubbing-and-rotating, or a pivoting motion. Here’s Caroline, describing her baccarat deal: “I have a tendency to be very open with my players. Like when I’m dealing three cards [she rubbed her hands together to demonstrate the start], you know, I’ll say ‘don’t look, see the ace?’ and then I’ll blow on my fingers. Nobody squeezes and spreads like me. And they get a kick out of it. I have to make them feel they want to be there.” She contrasts herself with dealers who seem more like robots than artists. For her, it is an entertainment industry.

Training on specific casino games used to be a formal process that was paid for by the employee. Most of the dealers we interviewed went to dealer school, a six-to-eight-week program offered by a local private academy or, in earlier days, the local county (community) college. Craps is the most difficult game to learn. A craps dealer like Emil would take a twelve-week course (about 240 hours) to learn to deal the game. Regulations have loosened here as well, and now dealers simply have to audition in a game to demonstrate competency. They can learn how to deal from friends or family, or even through the Internet. Caroline compares then versus now: “I had to go [to school] for baccarat nine and a half weeks. [Now] I could go and teach you the game and you could just go and interview, do the audition, and get hired.”

Here is what a full-time dealer signs up for: The work schedule is five days a week, forty hours a week. You are required to work weekends because that’s when a casino is busiest. Every dealer normally works Saturdays and most holidays. Dealers with the highest seniority are able to pick Sundays as one of their days off, even though Sundays are busy, too. A senior dealer who wants two consecutive days off would choose Sunday and Monday. Dealers with less time on the job might have Tuesdays and Wednesdays off, or Monday and Tuesdays. This work schedule makes it difficult to balance work and family.

Atlantic City casinos are now open 24/7/365, 24 hours, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. An eight-hour day shift normally starts at 8:00 a.m. or later. Swing shift begins around 4:00 to 6:00 p.m., and almost every new dealer starts on swing. Grave shift can start from anywhere between midnight and 4:00 a.m. The dealers we spoke with who had accumulated the highest seniority or tenure tended to opt for the swing shift, the shift spanning midnight because of the action. The day shift on weekdays is least preferred because business is slower and time moves slowly when the gaming floor is quiet. Dealers prefer to work when the action is lively. However, we heard from several employees with children that they actually favored the day shift. Of course, this is a better option for frontline workers who do not rely on tips, or in casinos where tips are pooled across shifts.

One of the benefits of working on the casino floor is access to an employee cafeteria and one free meal per shift. Some dealers arrive an hour early for work to get their employee meal before the shift while others stay late to eat after work. Comments we heard from dealers ranged from how grateful they were for the meal to complaints about the poor quality of cafeteria food. Such complaints have accelerated in recent years.

When you are dealing in a gaming pit on the casino floor, you remain on the floor until your break. You are a performer. You are “on” for the duration, typically one hour dealing followed by a twenty-minute break. A dealer’s hands must be completely visible to the customers and the security cameras at all times. Got an itch? Need to scratch your head? Did you sneeze? Need a tissue from your uniform apron? If so, then you must immediately open both hands wide, bring both hands together in a soft clapping motion, and show that they are empty to the eyes in the sky. It’s called “clearing your hands.” It has become such a habit for dealers to clear their hands that several do it even when they are not at work! Caroline laughed when she remembered, “I would set down my forks for a Thanksgiving dinner and then [clapping motion] clear my hands.” Count my money out at the cash register, clear my hands. Receive change, clear my hands. Return a necklace I asked to see up close at a jewelry store, clear my hands. Light my cigarette, clear my hands. It becomes second nature.

Break times away from the gaming tables occur often compared with other frontline service jobs. After an hour, a dealer gets tapped on the shoulder by a relief dealer. It’s called being “tapped out.” As soon as practicable in a game, you must leave the gaming pit for a twenty-minute break. Even an urge to go to the bathroom needs to wait for a break. Employees risk disciplinary action if they use public restrooms at most casinos. Facilities for their use are provided in the back of the house, but it could be quite a walk. As discussed in the 1998 book, Void Where Prohibited: Rest Breaks and the Right to Urinate on Company Time, regulations that require employers to provide bathrooms do not necessarily mandate that they allow employees to use them.[2] The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has subsequently tightened regulations to assert a right to void based on health, but implementation is inconsistent.

Since the dealers we spoke with often have regular customers who may dislike when their dealer leaves the table, a dealer heading off for a break will have an exit line such as “Good luck; see you in twenty.” Most dealers go to a break room, the employee cafeteria, or outside for a cigarette. Some may use break time to deliver one or two of their issued uniforms or blouses to the cleaning department, but most employees we spoke with prefer to wash their own uniforms. “If my uniform gets lost, then I have to take a substitute that may not fit me right,” we were told often.

Pay is the main reward for working in an environment where you handle thousands of dollars in cash, smoking is permitted, security cameras watch every move, you deal with all kinds of customers, and you feel the wear and tear that comes with repetitive motion work of the hands and arms. Our respondents listed their base wages as approximately $5.00 to $10.00 per hour before tips. Note that entry-level dealers at the lower end do not earn the federal minimum wage as a base wage. At some casinos, dealers improve their base salary by learning more table games, but at others, the incentives for additional training are primarily to avoid boredom and to increase one’s value to the employer. “You’ve got to have more games in order to hold your job,” Caroline says. You learn those games on your own time, except maybe the carnival games, the newer niche games. Sometimes managers will have you tap out, go upstairs, and train in-house on these games such as Texas Hold ’Em, three-card poker, four-card poker, Let It Ride, Caribbean poker, Texas Shootout, and Mississippi Stud.

Tips, called “tokes,” are pooled among the dealers. They are added to a dealer’s weekly paycheck. All tips from players go into a clear, metallic-like box. Dealers must “tap the box” to indicate that a tip is being taken and recognized. A chip that constitutes a tip is received, the box is tapped, and then the chip goes in with a clinking sound. “Ting!” Even an insulting tip of fifty cents or $1.00 needs to go into the box. “Fifty cents. Thank you very much, sweetheart. Oh, I now get to bang my box,” was a sarcastic comment uttered by Caroline during an evening shift. It is both an honor and a responsibility to be voted by your peers to serve on the toke committee. All of the boxes with tips are gathered by the committee, opened and spread out across a craps table, and carefully counted. A high “toke rate” for the week is cause for celebration.

In a typical week, the base pay with pooled tokes for an Atlantic City dealer might average $20-$25 per hour. Taking the midpoint of $22.50, for forty hours of work, that is $900 per week, or roughly $45,000 per year. On a good weekend at a busy casino, the dealers can average $40 or $50 in tokes per hour, bringing the annual salary closer to $50,000 or $60,000. Lately, competition from nearby states and a sluggish economy have decreased revenue, and the toke rate has dipped to below $20 per hour. But Borgata dealers have been holding steady at about $27 per hour or more in tokes alone, so full-time dealers at this top-grossing casino in town can earn $65,000-$68,000. Even some part-timers who hustle to get extra shifts are able to make this kind of money. Tips are generally pooled across all dealers for all work shifts during a week, except at the Borgata: Borgata’s toke rate is not weekly, but daily. This encourages employees to work weekends for the money. A weekend day or days included in your paycheck boosts your income. Just recently, Caesars also changed its pooling policy from weekly tips to daily tips because too many dealers were calling out of work on Saturdays. They didn’t want Saturday call outs to be free-riding on other dealers who did work their weekend shifts.

Because base wages are so low, tips are essential to providing a living wage for dealers. Defining a living wage is complex, but social scientists have calculated it based on the costs of running a household. The Center for Women’s Welfare at the University of Washington developed a well-respected standard that provides estimates of the minimum income needed to support families in each of the United States.[3] We used The 2011 New Jersey Self-Sufficiency Standard (5th edition), a detailed analysis of monthly costs for over seventy family types in each county. The self-sufficiency standard for a single adult in Atlantic County, New Jersey, would be $21,987 per year. Assuming full-time work of forty hours a week, fifty weeks a year, the hourly wage equivalent is $11. You can see why a dealer job is a desirable option for someone with a high school degree. With tips, the job earns far greater than the state and federal minimum wage, and a more-than-adequate income for a single-person household. But what about, for example, a household with one adult and two school-age children? That self-sufficiency standard in 2011 would be $41,262, requiring an equivalent hourly wage of $20.63. A dealer supporting a three-person family on one income would just barely reach the self-sufficiency standard.[4]

Dealing poker is different from dealing the other table games like blackjack, baccarat, or pai gow poker. Poker players are not playing against the house. There are typically six to ten players at a table competing against each other for pots. A player pays the casino an entry fee for a seat at the table. Or, in lieu of collecting table rent, the casino might take a cut of the pot, called a “rake” or commission; it is usually 2 to 5 percent of the pot, enough to cover the dealer’s base salary. Normally, poker dealers keep their own tips unless the individual casino has a pooled tip policy. And unlike other table games dealers, poker dealers do not stand throughout their shift; they sit at the table while dealing.

Poker got hot in the early twenty-first century, fueled by the rise of online poker games, televised tournaments, and pop culture depictions of cool, young poker players. National surveys from the American Gaming Association find that young adults prefer poker and craps more than older gamblers. A new generation of poker players broke the stereotype of working-class men in their undershirts, drinking beer while playing poker around the kitchen table. Once state gambling regulations were revised, Atlantic City responded to the growing popularity of poker by opening separate “brick and mortar” poker rooms. New Jersey casino visitors spent only $32.5 million on poker in 2002. Following the opening of Borgata in 2003, poker spending exploded to over $77 million in 2006.[5] That year, the Borgata went all in on poker and debuted the largest poker room in the city; they immediately captured a large share of the poker market. Other casinos have been dedicating more and more space to their poker rooms. By 2013, nine out of the twelve houses had poker rooms, according to Division of Gaming Enforcement monthly gross revenue reports. In 2014, the World Poker Tour (WPT) championship moved to the Borgata from the Bellagio in Las Vegas—a real coup for the Atlantic City casino.

Casino poker rooms have full- and part-time employees who deal poker exclusively. Those same dealers—or sometimes other table games dealers—can be called in to deal at poker tournaments. For Connie, who dealt blackjack before she got a job in security, dealing poker was a part-time gig at another casino in order to make extra money. “Novice poker dealers always start out doing tournaments, and that’s where you got your experience. So, I actually dealt one tournament and I didn’t like it. I didn’t like it at all,” said Connie. To her, poker (and craps) players are the rudest gamblers, the ones with the worst attitudes on the gaming floor. Her first poker tournament was also her last. But Lena spent years dealing in the poker room.

The pressure faced by poker dealers is to move the game or hustle the game, “how fast the deal ends and how many games you can get out there,” Lena says. The faster the games, the more pots; the more pots, the more revenue for the casino and the more tips for the dealers. A good dealer can “push” forty or fifty poker hands per hour. With eighty-five poker tables at the Borgata, that equates to roughly 3,825 hands played per hour on a busy Friday night, or over 30,000 hands per eight-hour shift. Besides speed and speed-up, another pressure faced by poker dealers is the intensity of the deal and the play—to never make a mistake: “You make a mistake and they’re not gonna let you get away from it. I mean, they are gonna eat you alive,” Lena confides about the players. As Connie expressed earlier about poker players, they can be nasty—cursing, name-calling, throwing cards and drinks, and sometimes getting more physically abusive. The latter can mean a call for security.

So that poker players don’t get too accustomed to a certain dealer, the dealers rotate among tables. As Lena puts it, “If I’m allowed to sit there for two hours, he’ll crush the game because of the way I am shuffling. There’s an order to it.” Poker dealers also get tapped out for breaks, but not as regularly as blackjack dealers. When you’re in the middle of a hand, you cannot leave the table. When the poker room is busy, you may get mandatory overtime. It makes it hard if, like Lena, you have a family, especially one that includes young children. She shares this: “So if we’re busy and let’s say I start at 10:00 in the morning and I’m counting to be home at 6:00 [p.m.], and I have a babysitter or I have to be home by 6:00, 6:30, and the room gets backed, I’m not leaving.”

When business slowed after Pennsylvania opened its casinos, and then even more during the Great Recession and its aftermath, Lena lost a lot of income. The full-time dealers collaborated and cooperated, choosing to engage in a kind of work-sharing program, with each voluntarily reducing the number of hours in their shifts to five or six hours (with early outs) in order to preserve full-time jobs.[6] Also, overtime used to be calculated daily. As soon as you exceeded your eight hours, you received overtime pay. Now it is tallied weekly. A slow five-hour day with an early out and a busy eleven-hour day average to eight hours, with no overtime pay. Such employment flexibility, averaging hours over a longer period of time, favors management, not workers.

Significant square footage of a gaming floor is set aside for slot machines. That’s where the money is. The maximum edge for the house, set by state regulation, is more favorable to the casino than table games. Sometimes the slots are “looser” than that. By 2012, Atlantic City had 26,883 gaming machines, second only to Nevada among commercial casinos in the United States.[7] Electronic gaming machines such as slots and video poker are the most popular with casino visitors, according to the American Gaming Association’s annual reports. In Atlantic City, slot machine revenue overtook table games relatively early in the city’s casino history and slots have stayed as the overwhelming number one ever since. In calendar year 2012, for example, slot machine win was 72 percent of total casino win.[8] Besides raking in money for the gaming halls, slot machine manufacturing is big business. A new commercial slot machine typically costs no less than $10,000. Companies are continuously trying to bring newer games to the consumer. New games require new or repurposed machines from the manufacturer.[9]

“Perhaps nothing has so profoundly impacted the nature of gaming operations in Atlantic City as much as technology innovation,” writes Jane Bokunewicz, a hospitality professor with industry experience.[10] Especially slot machines. Once mechanical slot machines were called “one-armed bandits” for the black handle one would pull on the right-hand side of the machine after inserting coins into a hopper and hearing them drop; next came watching the wheels spin and praying for a win that would dispense by coins in a tray near the bottom. Customers collected the coins in large plastic cups featuring the casino’s logo. The early machines didn’t even require electricity.[11]Employees transported hundreds of thousands of dollars in coins to the “hard count room.” According to Bokunewicz, “The weight of the trolleys that transported coin from the slot floor to the count room often caused the marble floors to crack and employees emptying the machines sometimes suffered back strain from lifting the heavy bags. The pouring of coin into the counting machines was very loud and employees had to wear ear protection to prevent hearing damage.”[12]

Today’s machines are electronic. Caesars was the first Atlantic City casino to experiment with coin-free slots in 2001, but the trend consolidated when the new Borgata casino opened in July 2003 as a completely coin-free casino. The shift to completely cashless slots is due to the utilization of ticket-in/ticket-out (TITO) technology. Instead of coins, players are provided a magnetic card (also used as a loyalty card) that is loaded up with a cash balance like a debit card. The card allows a “slot data system” to extract information about gamblers and their play. Slot machine payouts are now made through a bar-coded ticket that can be redeemed for cash or inserted back into the machine to continue play. Changes in computer technology and software have spurred the growth of multi-casino progressive jackpots through slot machines linked across casinos, raising possible payouts, thus attracting more betting. For the older Atlantic City casinos that had to modernize their slot machines, including the electrical and mechanical infrastructure required to run them, the process took four to five years.[13]

Despite some initial trepidation, the technological changes were welcomed by the casino customer. No one is saddled with carrying around all that coin. The advances have also facilitated the employer’s financial accounting and marketing plans. The results for casino employees are more mixed. The entry-level job of change person—walking the floor and providing change—has disappeared. (Several of our older participants had started out providing change on the casino floor.) Fewer slot technicians/slot mechanics are needed to fix the machines, since the most common breakdown involved coins getting stuck.

Slot attendants still cover the slot areas to ensure all machines are properly functioning and still handle jackpots. While smaller payouts can be redeemed by feeding a winning ticket into a machine on the floor or going to the cashier’s window, a big win means the slot attendant has to spring into action. The job duties now principally involve providing customer service. The pay hovers near $8.00 per hour, with tips that you can keep yourself—but not nearly as much in tips as dealers earn: maybe $50-$75 per week, not $20-$25 per hour. According to Valerie, a slot technician, you walk your assigned section the whole time you are on the floor, an eight-hour shift, with three breaks. You have to attend to the lights on the machine, write up jackpots, and answer numerous questions from customers, who can make the job difficult. “How do you play this new machine?” “What’s a hot machine?” “Where’s the ladies room?” Attendants call in the slot supervisor only if there is a problem they cannot handle, as when Valerie was twice assaulted by different customers. Standing and roaming around your slot machine zone really takes a toll on your hips, legs, and feet, says Valerie. “I had to go out on medical [leave] a couple of times because of problems with my feet. And they had no mercy as you came back: Boom! You’re in the busy section. They wouldn’t give you a section that was quite simple to work.”

Terrence was drawn to the Atlantic City area because of the new gaming industry and has been fixing casino slot machines since 1980. “I am a professional problem solver,” he insists, “I’m not just a technician.” He has fixed each generation of machine, from the early mechanical reels to today’s sophisticated electronic ones. With his years of seniority, this tall, proud, jazz-loving, and erudite man earns $25 per hour, about $1,000 per week for full-time, year-round work. With his earnings, he supports an ex-wife and, when they were younger, two children. Terrence, as described in chapter 1, first learned his trade by attending slot technician school for sixteen weeks. He maintains his competencies through on-the-job training, avid reading, and tinkering with fixing things around the house. He says he has “manual dexterity” and is relaxed around technology. Normally confined to the slot areas, once or twice this mechanically gifted technician has been called to the casino floor to try to fix a roulette wheel. Terrence elaborates about one incident: “The little electric eye that reads where the ball goes, and it flashes on the screen. That malfunctioned last night, because we had a thunderstorm. And there’s some kind of circuit that protects these electronic instruments, and that circuit just had to be reset. And they were confused about it. They asked me to do it. I was confused about it, so I very calmly looked into it, and familiarized myself with the technology, and decided to relax enough to let my brain take over, to theorize what could be done to get these things to work. And they were all malfunctioning. And the customers were still playing roulette while I was trying to get the thing done. And everybody asked me—people asked me, ‘What’s it like being a slot technician?’ Well, imagine you have a party in your house, and something breaks in your house. Like the stereo breaks, and all of a sudden the sounds goes, everybody’s partying, and you have to go—while they’re drinking and having hors d’oeuvres and partying, dancing, you have to go behind there with a flashlight and a soldering iron, and fix this thing while people are dancing and all this confusion is around you. It’s very difficult. I would much rather work in an isolated laboratory, but that’s the make of the casino business.”

Maintaining the old machines that took coins was a lot of work, a “tremendous amount of manpower,” Terrence said. Today’s space-age machines are more like large laptop computers. They eliminate the need for a hard count team, a cashier who sells coins, and many attendants who have to attend to problems with the machines. Management tried to reduce the slot machine workforce through attrition, but it wasn’t fast enough, Terrence recalls. Eventually they began to lay people off by seniority, or by disciplinary records: “[T]hey said they were downsizing. And the only thing they could do was look at people who had blemishes on their work record. These were not severe infractions. In fact, one fellow was Day One employee. He had been out a couple of times on medical leave. I think they held that against him. Another guy had took—went out on leave to help his ailing mother … and came back when she died.” He was fired. The general manager at the time had to execute a target goal of only one slot technician per 100 slot machines.

The overwhelming majority of casino workers work on the front lines, providing direct services to customers. Work in the service sector is different from work in agriculture or manufacturing. Services have three characteristics: (1) they are intangible, (2) production and consumption of a service happen simultaneously, and (3) customers participate in the production process. A farmer may never meet the customer who eats his or her broccoli and an auto worker will probably never know who purchases the cars that roll off the assembly line. But gamblers and dealers interact in the process of creating the experience that casinos are selling.

Working with customers is both rewarding and challenging. Interactive service workers constitute an emotional proletariat, according to sociologists Cameron Lynne Macdonald and Carmen Sirianni.[14] Unlike the quintessential proletarians who assemble objects, service workers’ products are their customers’ experiences. On the job, they attempt to evoke particular emotions in their customers, but must control their own emotions in order to do this. The skill required to do both while focusing on the detailed activities that create the service is often invisible, difficult to measure, and poorly compensated.[15] Yet the ability to do it well is a source of pride.

Dealing is performance, like acting or stand-up comedy. But rather than being on stage, dealers are right there in the pits. Gamblers are as diverse as the employees who cater to them. Dealers appreciate the funny ones, the generous ones, the ones who treat them with respect. They often have regular customers, knowing them by face if not by name. Patrice made friends with many of her regulars and would make birthday cards to send them. Many days on the job are marked by routine interactions with friendly customers out to have a good time. These customers know their limits and stick to them. But drunk gamblers are bothersome. If a player is slouching at the blackjack table, he or she can be “flagged” by the dealer and a pit boss will come to evaluate whether the customer can continue to play. How often does this happen? About twenty times a week, says Laurel.

When gamblers are losing a lot of money, however, they can get nasty. The worst offenders throw things, like drinks—dangerous if they are served in real glassware. Or spit at you. Dealers have been called swear words such as bitch and mother-f*%# and the offensive c-word used to denigrate women. The f-bomb gets tossed around the casino a lot. When Donna dealt craps, she found it particularly difficult for women. “Women do not belong at the craps table,” one customer snapped at her. Dealers have to swallow their own emotions and concentrate on transforming the emotional state of their cranky customers using humor, sympathy, or a firm setting of boundaries, depending on the situation.

Caroline told us she tries to push the nastiness aside because the pit bosses and shift managers know and recognize how good she is at her job. The recognition and respect from management really makes a difference. “How long have you been doing this?” one new shift manager asked Caroline. A long time was the answer, over thirty years. “I wish all the dealers were like you,” he continued, and then he asked the favor. “Listen, you gotta go deal to this guy. We’re going to give you a $100 bonus. He’s gonna call you every dirty name in the book. Would you mind?”

This particular high roller was escorted up the steps to a private gaming area behind a curtain. He bet four or five hands at $30,000 per hand. Caroline started shuffling and said, “Hi, sweetheart.” He replied, “Ha, sweetheart! I might like this.” She looked him dead in the face and added, “Excuse me, sir, the last time you left I had to go home and take a cold shower,” and his reply was, “I’m really gonna like this.” The player screamed while Caroline smiled. Caroline’s story continues: “So, I finish shuffling. I go to put the cards in and he goes, ‘Put the cut card in,” and I go, ‘Whoa, baby, you don’t just slam it in there; you got to stick it in where it feels right.’ Like I said, I gave him a little bit of his own. But I made it fun… . I am an entertainer… . The next time I dealt to him, he lost $1.7 million, kissed my hands, and told the shift manager, ‘I had a good time.’” Emil, also a high-limit dealer, occasionally tapped out to head to a VIP room upstairs, and said gamblers there bet “obscene” amounts of money, like $100,000 or $150,000 a hand. As a man, however, he did not endure the same kind of sexual innuendo that Caroline had to deflect.

Dealers have traditionally worn a conservative uniform and sensible shoes that help them withstand the many hours on their feet. But Atlantic City casinos are now hiring “entertainment dealers,” primarily women. Graciela relayed that “corporate,” meaning management, is going for “a certain type of look … physical attractiveness.” These new dealers are younger, sexier, and are noticeable in their distinct uniforms. The skirts are very short. The required bustiers, reminiscent of a modern-day Victorian corset, show a lot of cleavage. They flatten and shape a woman’s midsection while lifting up the breasts. Entertainment dealers are required to dance while they deal. They can be pulled into work for conventions and areas of the gaming floor set aside as a “party pit” or at one of the new table games brought into the casino bars. They are part of the increased sexualization of the casino industry in Atlantic City, marketing women’s bodies to attract customers, discussed in detail in chapter 5.

To a person, the dealers said the security cameras were there to help them, to protect them against practices like past-posting—that is, posting a bet in roulette after the wheel stops. Some players will try to cheat the house if they think they can get away with it. When a dealer thinks someone is cheating, they can “call the camera” (security) because every game is being digitally recorded in the security room. That’s where Sean comes in, working swing shift in a job title called “surveillance operator.” Like an air traffic controller, he surveys monitors. His casino has roughly thirty of them covering just the gaming floor, and he can zoom in with any of them to investigate incidents, including potential cheating.

A dealer develops excellent peripheral vision while on the job and pays special attention to the “outside bets,” the ones at the edges of the table. Dealers also become attuned to who the hustlers are. Hustlers hang around close to gamblers looking for winners. They suggest bets to you. They say, “Hey, your cards are getting good.” They start rooting for you. They’ll eventually deliver the come-on: “You’re winning because I’m here. How about giving me twenty bucks?” This practice is not legal, but it happens regularly.

Even though his primary job description involves tinkering with machines, Terrence is not immune to the problems of abusive customers. His job also requires emotional labor. He is aware that many regulars are addicted to the same machine. When it malfunctions, they get mad. When they lose money, they get mad—sometimes to a point well past the line of decency.

One story is burned into Terrence’s memory. One very drunk customer once said to him, “You know [Terrence], you’re the biggest [N-word] I ever seen, man.” Coolly but clearly, Terrence replied: “‘Sir’—in front of all these people, the place was crowded as hell—I said, ‘Sir, listen, you didn’t have to use the N-word like that.’” It didn’t end there. Terrence continued the story. “I was very humble at that point. He says, he goes, ‘No, I’m serious man, you’re the biggest f*#&in’ [N-word] I ever seen. C’mere. Look at this guy! Oh Jesus. You know [Terrence], you know, if your cock is as big as the rest of your body, you’d be a great f*#&. I’m dying.’ By then, I started laughing. That was the rudest thing ever happened to me. I started laughing, I laughed so hard, I, please God, I walked out of the room laughing, I ran down the bathroom, I thought I was going to throw up.” His mature response to us was, “I’m not going to blow a job, a thousand-dollar-a-week job, over one asshole.”

And yes, he has heard the tales and seen the evidence of gamblers refusing to budge from a machine if they have to go to the bathroom. We heard such stories repeatedly. He adds that he has a sense of responsibility because he roams around his assigned zone with the keys to the machines, with customers pestering him about how to rig the machines. “Customers,” he says, “when they see you have the key to a slot machine, their imaginations run wild. And if I had a dollar for every time someone asked me to fix the machine for them, I’d be richer than Oprah!”

Each casino has to weigh how desperate for business they are against the dignity of their employees. But a great deal of misbehavior is tolerated. Graciela, a dual rate pit manager, said of casinos as workplaces: “Rules are gone. I mean, because you’re listening to customers cursing all the time… . Take it in and let it go.” Isiah agreed, adding about the skills needed on the job, “Just be able to handle stress … we have regular abuse and, you know, be quiet. Don’t talk back to the customers.”

Creating a life requires the income and benefits that lead to decent living standards, but also time, good health, and institutional supports for family and community. The ill-effects of shift work and smoking have always been a downside of the industry. Casino workers have little control over the hours they work. The rigid schedules of casino shifts and the point penalties for call outs make it more challenging to balance paid work with family/personal responsibilities, whether that means getting to the doctor, picking up children, or caring for a sick or elderly family member. Holly, a Borgata dealer, is positively remorseful about all the hours not spent with her son during his formative years. She built up her seniority to switch to the day shift so that she could have a more normal life, better integrated with other workers, family, and friends: “Swing shift—I would sleep all day and work all night. So I really had no time. And I lost a lot of time with my son, a lot of time that I regret. The casinos, I thought it was all glitz and glamour years ago, but I can’t ever get back that time I lost.” It also makes it hard to sustain marriages or partnership when the two adults are like “passing ships,” working opposite shifts so that someone can be home with the kids. When is their “together time”?

In the scholarly literature, odd shifts in around-the-clock staffing are called “nonstandard” or “unsocial” hours.[16] A 2007 survey of 700 frontline casino workers in Atlantic City found that 2-3 percent “almost always” or “often” had (schedule) issues sufficient enough to interfere with their job. Another 15-20 percent were “sometimes” affected by these pressures.[17] In the survey, child care was the key issue for casino employees aged thirty to forty-nine years. In our interviews, we definitely heard repeatedly from workers, especially women, about the challenges of nonstandard working hours, in particular coping with child care and elder care. So did Dena Wittmann, as reported in her book chapter titled “A Day in the Night of a Casino Worker.”[18] Wittmann’s Mississippi casino workers with the least seniority started on the unpopular shifts and then moved to “better” shifts over time, shifts that helped to alleviate child care challenges. But they still had to work weekends.

Quality child care is not very affordable in the United States. According to a recent report by Child Care Aware of America, the annual cost of child care for infants, for example, can be as much as the cost of college tuition.[19]To help juggle child care, employees on the gaming floor have sought help from their mothers, grandmothers, brothers, friends, and neighbors. They have worked with teachers and school principals to involve their children in after-school programs, where they are available. Children have been passed off from one parent to another between shifts, or from school to babysitters or to grandma or friends. Laurel took a late shift when her children were young so that her mother could watch them, as her mother worked daytimes. “My mother was my right arm,” she confessed. Graciela’s experience was similar. She moved in with her mom for several years while her children were very young. For Lena, it was a family friend who enabled her to deal poker while her children were young. Isiah and his wife are a two-dealer family. They both work swing shift so that he can go to college during the day while his wife takes care of their five children and manages all their activities. When they were younger, Isiah’s mother would help out with child care. Marlene’s mother-in-law suffered a stroke and required elder care, which she shared with her husband. It’s hard juggling everything, she says.

Casinos are one of the last bastions for smokers. New Jersey’s Smoke-free Air Act banned smoking in most public places as of April 15, 2006. But cigar bars, similar tobacco-related businesses, and Atlantic City gaming floors were exempted. Still unhappy (and unhealthy) casino workers lobbied the City Council of Atlantic City to consider a local ban to close the “casino floor loophole.” City government did approve a ban on 75 percent of the casino floor in April of 2007 and subsequently a total ban in October of 2008. The casino industry and the State of New Jersey worried about a negative economic impact of a total ban. As a result, it was rolled back to a 75/25 percent rule, a compromise that allowed casinos to keep both smoking and nonsmoking sections of the casino floors and improve their ventilation systems in doing so.[20] Anyone visiting or working in a casino in town calls the segregation of smokers ineffectual. Second-hand smoke remains a severe occupational health hazard for employees on the floor. One nonsmoking floor supervisor, Vince Rennich (his real name), reached a $4.5 million settlement with Tropicana in 2010 after suing his employer when he got lung cancer.

Our dealers complained often about smoke being blown in their faces, sometimes on purpose. Terrence has a hacking cough he can’t get rid of because of the smoke. So does Donna; she says, “I never had a cough. I coughed constantly in that casino.” Graciela developed asthma after only a few years on the job: “it’s getting worse because [I] have to rely on more medication more frequently.” When Ally, a dealer, goes to the doctor, he listens to her lungs and checks her lung X-ray. Then he asks: “Do you smoke?” She answers no, it’s second-hand smoke from the casino. Isiah’s unceasing dry, irritated, and red eyes are not soothed by any eye drops. Felicia recalls smoking and nonsmoking sections in the employee cafeteria: “In smoking, you look at the ceiling tiles, they are completely brown.” We listened to grumbles about the smoke from self-identified smokers and nonsmokers alike.

If it’s not exposure to smoke that contributes to a dealer’s health problems, it’s repetitive motion injuries (hands, wrist, elbow, shoulder) and/or back and foot pain from spending so much time on your feet. Numerous dealers described nerve damage and pain from carpal tunnel syndrome and related disorders in such detail that we winced. They had endured surgeries or were postponing them as long as they could. Playing poker is fun at home, but imagine shuffling deck after deck after deck of cards for five full-time shifts per week. Dealing craps, especially being on the stick, requires repeated bending over, twisting, and turning during a shift, which is really hard on the back, as in Jesse’s case.

Jesse told us his back endured so much wear and tear and strain from dealing craps that one night it just gave out: it snapped in the middle of his shift—one or two discs in the lumbar spine. After being helped off the casino floor, he had back surgery. He alleged that the casinos are not complying with the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, or at least do not appear to be embracing it. Although Jesse dealt blackjack for years, after surgery he was ordered right back to the craps table. “I felt that they were in violation with me because they tried to do nothing,” Jesse complained. “Nothing to appease my job. As a matter of fact, when I got back, the first job they put me on was dealing craps. I went upstairs and raised hell. I said, ‘How you gonna put me, my first day back from back surgery, on a craps table?’ He said ‘Well, [Jesse], you’re supposed to be 100 percent.’ I said ‘Whatchu mean? I got cut on; I’m not gonna be 100 percent … just take me outta craps.’” So they did.

The impressions and ailments related to us by the Atlantic City employees we interviewed have been borne out by scholarly articles in the field of public health. One relevant, large study of casino workers in London, England, finds that 91 percent of them self-reported sensory irritation symptoms: red or irritated eyes; runny nose, sneezing, or nose irritation; sore or scratchy throat. A startlingly high percentage, 84 percent, reported respiratory symptoms: wheezing or whistling in the chest; shortness of breath; usually cough first thing in the morning; cough at all during the rest of the day or night; bringing up phlegm.[21] The authors compare their results to previous studies of workers highly exposed to second-hand smoke. There is consistency among the findings. Though most previous research has focused on bar and restaurant workers, an earlier study of casino workers in Victoria, Australia, shows comparable self-reported respiratory symptoms.[22]

In chapter 1, we proposed that A good job is one that helps you create a life and reinforces a positive sense of identity. Are casinos providing good jobs on the gaming floor, especially in today’s economic climate?

Changes in corporate ownership and management have altered the atmosphere in Atlantic City casinos. The employees we spoke with live with the results. Speed-up and work redesign. Wages and salaries frozen for years. Cost cutting—everything from wages and benefits to the selection and quality of food in the employee cafeteria. The general consensus was that management used to treat people better. Several employees noted that the customers, too, were getting less. Dealers and slot machine personnel are walking on eggshells. Rising fear of being reprimanded increased insecurity. No one wants to be the next employee shown the door.

The largest cost cuts have come from reductions in staff and the trend toward part-time, temporary, and contingent employment. It is less costly to have lower-paid part-time dealers than more senior full-time dealers. When senior dealers retire or leave, they are not replaced. We heard over and over that getting a full-time job dealing in Atlantic City “is impossible.” Because his hours at one casino were lowered, Isiah deals at two casinos to try to reach forty hours per week. Other part-time dealers cobble together shifts at more than one casino, too. A disciplinary point system is used to monitor attendance and performance, and modified if a top manager thinks it can be tweaked to cut costs. If you leave work without authorization, for example, you will be discharged without warning, regardless of your yearly point total. We were initially shocked to learn that employees garner points when they use their official paid sick days—more points if you give notice at the last minute. And it is not just staff cuts that have plagued the Atlantic City casinos, it is employee benefits cuts. Ken griped, “They cut the benefits, they cut basically anything that would be to your benefit, and that’s why the union came in for the dealers, because we were just tired of it.” Contributions to employee 401(k) plans were reduced, and in some cases the employer portion of the contribution was eliminated altogether. Further, eligibility for health insurance no longer coincides with employment. You have to wait, says Graciela: “Now they make it more difficult for people to get insurance.” Full-time workers have to wait thirty days. “You are lucky to even have health benefits at all” was a common theme from our interviews.

Even smaller expenses were cut, such as holiday pay, two personal days, and payments for unused sick time. These cuts affected veteran slot technician Terrence:

I had a perfect attendance record. So as a result of that, I had all these unused sick time [days]. Now, they had a policy where they said, if you had any hours over eighty, which is basically two weeks, you could get—they would buy that back from you at the end of the year, and you would get that check around, sometime around Christmas time. And it was a check for about over a thousand dollars. That’s like a week’s pay. Well, what happened was, one year, about this same time of year, Human Resources sent out a memo, says, effective immediately, we will no longer give out the Wellness Checks; they called them Wellness Checks. Well, in my opinion, I said, well that sucks. Because why couldn’t they have just said, “effective January 1”—[we] are no longer issuing Wellness Checks. And that really messed me up… . That was about three years ago. I was saying, I was telling people, I said, you know, it reminds me of—of the story of the Christmas Carol, where you know, they look—they’re sitting having Christmas dinner, they look over to the fireplace, there was poor Tiny Tim’s little crutch sitting by the empty stool. I said, “Those rotten sons of bitches. Took my money.”

Then, since employees were not rewarded for perfect attendance, they started using their paid time off (by calling out). So management changed the PTO system, increasing penalties for some call outs. Terrence hypothesizes that changes in casino management (and ownership) at the top led to consultants sitting with the human resources department to change policies to save money. Valerie, a slot attendant, recalls having two weeks of paid vacation in earlier days, “which is unheard of these days.” And you cannot complain, adds Felicia, a twenty-year veteran slot attendant: “I’ll never forget it. No matter how good you were, if you complained or tried to, ‘You don’t like it, quit,’” employees were told.

Many employee cafeterias have gone downhill, too. With employers pinching pennies, the quality and the variety of food have fallen victim. Sometimes it is seemingly the little things that can make a difference in employee morale, especially for employees who cannot go out to eat and must remain on the casino property. For dealers and slot employees trapped inside the casino for eight hours at a time, the employee cafeteria matters. It matters a lot. Emil’s alarm clock goes off in the middle of the night so he can report for a 4:00 a.m. grave shift start. He says: “When we come in, it’s like, there’s like hard boiled eggs and oatmeal because it’s a breakfast time. And it doesn’t change until like noon. So, I mean you have cold cereal, hard boiled eggs, oatmeal, bacon; they have a guy at the grill that can make omelets and stuff like that, but it’s like, you want real food sometimes, you know, especially if you’ve been up… . I mean, at the point where they took out the hot sauce, the honey, the raisins, like little things they would cut back on the little things. A lot of people don’t notice but I did. And the recent last five years, they really got chintzy with all their stuff, their food, everything. Like A1 sauce. I know it’s expensive but they took that away. That was like the first thing to go. Even like their Tabasco sauce, gone.”

Replacing full-time dealers who had benefits with part-time dealers with no benefits, and cutting out benefits, means that the New Jersey casino referendum promise of good jobs and good wages is a broken one. A job dealing or working in the slot machine section of one of the city’s casinos is no longer an automatic ticket to a middle-class livelihood. Management was not spared, either, but was pared. Emil told us that “they fired loads, probably hundreds of them because of their salary.” Full-time floorpersons or supervisors were replaced with dual rates.

Robin, a casino manager, has a unique perspective from multiple sides of the industry. She has worked her way up the chain of command, holding many of the job titles of the other employees we interviewed on the gaming side of casino operations. She remembers blackjack school and roulette training like it was yesterday. And she uses her management and supervisory training and skills on a daily basis, carrying out the efficiencies and cost-cutting dictates of even higher-ups. Robin reminds us that being on the other side of the labor-management relationship is hard too. She has had to “trim staff,” that is, lay off people. She has had to evaluate what pits and games are open and closed and when to make really tough calls. As a human being, this role takes its toll, though in a different way from being on the receiving end of it.

A job dealing table games, poker, or tending slot machines at an Atlantic City casino was once a ticket to a middle-class life. It is no longer. Once it was easier for an entry-level dealer to move up into management, even into top management. No longer. Once a casino job was highly sought because it was fun and because employees were treated well by local managers who knew their workers by name and roamed the casino floor often. No longer. Employees are holding on as best they can while the workforce has dwindled and their take-home pay and benefits have shrunk. As we will see in chapter 6, some employees are trying to fight back by union organizing.

A good job is also one that affords the worker a sense of dignity and purpose. These intrinsic rewards are hard to find when you are subjected to obnoxious customers and working in an industry that often profits from addiction. Not surprisingly, the few studies that focus on subjective measures of job satisfaction among casino employees in places like Las Vegas and Macau indicate low employee morale, a chronic problem for the industry.[23]From encouraging each other in the cafeteria to volunteer work-sharing to save jobs, the frontline employees still working in Atlantic City gaming houses—especially the full-time workers who have committed decades of their lives to serving the gambling public—are hanging on for just one more hand, in hopes of better days ahead.


Wanda M. Costen, Christian E. Hardigree, and Michael A. Testagrossa, “Glass Ceiling or Saran Wrap™? Women in Gaming Management,” UNLV Gaming Research & Review Journal 7, no. 2 (2003): 1-12.


Marc Linder and Ingrid Nygaard, Void Where Prohibited (Ithaca, NY: ILR, 1998).


Other methodologies use a multiple of the poverty line.


See the University of Washington’s Center for Women’s Welfare work on self-sufficiency standards, accessed May 28, 2014, We used the Excel chart for New Jersey in 2011.


American Gaming Association, 2007 State of the States: The AGA Survey of Casino Entertainment (Washington, DC: AGA), 32.


Work sharing policies have been implemented in many developed countries, but usually focus on male workers in manufacturing and construction industries. But a study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research indicates that the leisure and hospitality sector could benefit greatly from such a policy. See Dean Baker, Work Sharing: The Quick Route Back to Full Employment (Washington, DC: Center for Economic and Policy Research, June 2011).


American Gaming Association, 2013 State of the States, 35.


Calculated from New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement, “DGE Announces December 2012 Casino Win Results,” January 13, 2013, accessed March 3, 2014,


Atlantic City’s casinos have purchased machines from a local company founded in 1978 to coincide with gaming in the city, AC Coin and Slot. In 2009, this local company signed an amended agreement with one of the world’s leaders in gaming equipment manufacturing, International Game Technology (IGT). It allows IGT to distribute machines and games in Atlantic City and allows AC Coin and Slot to tap into IGT’s global distribution network.


Jane Bokunewicz, “The Evolution of Casino Technology Atlantic City,” in Casino Gaming in Atlantic City: A Thirty Year Retrospective, 1978-2008, ed. Brian J. Tyrrell and Israel Posner (Margate, NJ: ComteQ, 2009), 23.


One of Atlantic City’s earliest slot machines is on display in the lobby of the hotel at Resorts Casino.


Bokunewicz, “Evolution of Casino Technology in Atlantic City,” 24.


In one interview, we received quite a detailed lesson in the wiring of the older and new generation of slot machines from Terrence, a slot technician.


Cameron Lynne Macdonald and Carmen Sirianni, eds., Working in the Service Society (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996), 25.


Ronnie J. Steinberg and Deborah M. Figart, eds., Emotional Labor in the Service Economy, The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 561 (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1999).


Harriet B. Presser, Working in a 24/7 Economy: Challenges for American Families (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2003).


Israel Posner and Lewis Leitner, “Front Line Careers,” Casino Connection magazine, June 2007. The paper magazine was discontinued in 2011 and is replaced by a website at


Dena C. Wittmann, “A Day in the Night of a Casino Worker: Shift Work Culture of Mississippi Dockside Gaming Employees,” in Resorting to Casinos: The Mississippi Gaming Industry, ed. Denise von Herrman (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2006), 121-42.


Child Care Aware of America, Parents and the Cost of Child Care: 2013 Report, Arlington, VA, accessed March 3, 2014,


This brief history is from Derek Harper, “Total Ban on Smoking has Life in Legislature,” Press of Atlantic City, February 26, 2009.


Paul A. Pilkington, Selena Gray, and Anna B. Gilmore, “Health Impacts of Exposure to Second Hand Smoke (SHS) Amongst a Highly Exposed Workforce: Survey of London Casino Workers,” BMC Public Health 7, no. 257 (2007): 1-8.


Melanie Wakefield, Melissa Cameron, Graeme Inglis, Tessa Letcher, and Sarah Durkin, “Second-hand Smoke Exposure and Respiratory Symptoms among Casino, Club and Office Workers in Victoria, Australia,” Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine 47, no. 7 (2005): 698-703.


Billy Bai, K. Pearl Brewer, Gail Simmons, and Skip Swerdlow, “Job Satisfaction, Organizational Commitment, and Internal Service Quality: A Case Study of Las Vegas Hotel/Casino Industry,” Journal of Human Resources in Hospitality & Tourism 5, no. 2 (2006): 37-54; Donald M. Peppard Jr. and Frances A. Boudreau, “Job Quality and Job Satisfaction among Casino Workers: The Case of Foxwoods,” Gaming Research & Review Journal 2, no. 2 (1995): 31-42; and Zhonglu Zeng, David Forrest, and Ian G. McHale, “Happiness and Job Satisfaction in a Casino-Dominated Economy,” Journal of Gambling Studies 29, no. 3 (2013): 471-90.

Inez and Lily’s Story

Inez and Lily both have personal drive fueled by an immigrant commitment to the American dream. But they are at very different places in the earnings structure of the casino. Part of the discrepancy is due to differences in their education and language skills. Some is due to family responsibilities. Some, however, is simply due to the physical assets they were born with. Lily can make more money because she has the looks to work nights serving cocktails in a skintight outfit, while Inez works behind the scenes on day shifts in steamy kitchens and banquet halls.

Inez immigrated to Los Angeles, California, from El Salvador in the 1990s, joining her parents who had paved the way a few years earlier. A young mother, she left one young child with her family back home and traveled pregnant with her second. She soon relocated to northern New Jersey and began paid work in a factory. Factory life, Inez says succinctly, is a “very difficult job and you don’t [earn] a lot of money.” Worried about supporting one child in her home country and one in the United States, Inez and her boyfriend decided to look for better-paying jobs in the growing casinos of southern New Jersey.

The couple settled in Atlantic City. With very little knowledge of English, she began paid work in the busy kitchens of the Taj Mahal. Inez started reading newspapers to learn and practice English. She studied the names of dishes and utensils. She observed what her coworkers were doing in their jobs. She was a good student. Her efforts were rewarded with a promotion to steward.

A steward works behind the scenes preparing for banquets and special parties. The tables, the plates, the flatware, and the serving bowls, platters, and utensils need to be clean and set. Basically, Inez helps ensure spit and polish of the room. A steward needs everything perfect for the servers so the special event seems to flow effortlessly. It is a more difficult job than it looks. Banquets are fast-paced, with multiple courses, cups, cocktails, and cares. The kitchen is very, very hot, and noisy—“we are sweating everywhere,” Inez declares. Her seniority garners her the top wage for her job classification (porter/steward) in the Local 54 union contract. This means Inez earns almost twice the federal minimum wage, about $14 per hour. Still, supporting what are now four children in a high cost of living state such as New Jersey is hard. Hers is not a tipped position but earns a straight hourly wage. In terms of pay, a steward or porter is comparable to a line server, a cafeteria attendant, a food runner, a restaurant host or hostess, and many jobs in housekeeping.

Besides punching in for the day shift, the first thing that Inez does at work is “go to the kitchen and check the board if we have any other events, because this can change at any moment and they can ask for a party one day before.” Then she sets out to prepare for the day’s booking. It might start out with a coffee and tea service for a group. There could be a business luncheon or two in the book. She even needs to do the setup for the evening during her shift. Because of the surprise factor, Inez tries to do as much as she can in advance. Clean dishes need to be ready. Are there enough cups and saucers? Are we short of dessert plates? The flatware/silverware and glasses need to be spotless. The tablecloths need to be laid out and the napkins need folding. She says it is an unending, revolving door of dishes coming out, dishes being cleared, dishes being cleaned, and dishes coming out again: “We do not stop.” On New Year’s Eve, she would be responsible for setting up for a group of 4,000-5,000 guests. Dishes—bread, salad, appetizer, entrée, desserts—that’s at least 20,000-25,000 dishes alone!

Inez conveys she handles the tasks by breaking down the room. Break the room into sections. Break the event into parts. Except for preplanning, don’t get ahead of yourself. Often there are multiple rooms to take care of, each with a different service requested. The maximum number she would have to prepare and restock is four or five rooms at once. Gradually, Inez’s supervisor, a food and beverage manager or banquet manager, gave her more and more responsibility. “Okay,” he would say, “we have a party for twenty-five people, make sure you do this and that” and she would.

Her attention to detail, organization, and advance planning reveals a bit of a Type-A personality. The right way to do her job, she maintains, is to “attend to it like it is your house. And in your house you want everything organized, everything in the place where it has to be.” And her meticulousness: “Sometimes they bring me something very dark and I can polish and make it shine and I love that.” Her coworkers and supervisors have grown accustomed to this over the years. Inez even has a sense of humor about it, and the ribbing that comes with her personality. She confesses: “I am a stickler when I do something, like I say ‘Don’t touch my stuff.’ If I have my stuff clean I don’t want nobody [to] come and touch and damage my job.” Obviously, Inez has no problems with the white gloves that are required as part of her uniform. The whiter, the better.

When she steps back and surveys a room after setup, Inez says she feels a bit like a builder or a decorator, excited about the product of the teamwork. She contrasted that to when she is in the kitchen, just the regular day-to-day grind of dealing with the potatoes or cleaning the dishes: “Washing the dishes the whole day is boring to me,” she said. The repetitive process of loading the dirty dishes into a large machine and then unloading the steaming, hot, clean dishes at the other end is less satisfying.

Inez feels lucky to work the day shift, 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. She uses one thirty-minute break in the middle of her shift to go to the cafeteria, about a five-minute walk, and eat a swift meal while practicing her English with coworkers. With a large event, though, she needs to report at 5:00 a.m. When this occurs, management will either change her shift times or pay her overtime (extend her shift). As specified in her union contract, management will ask workers to stay longer or, if the overtime is mandatory, provide a two-hour notice beforehand. But stewards and servers know that when they see a large banquet booked on the schedule posted every Friday, this can mean a ten-hour shift instead of an eight-hour shift.

What’s good about her day shift is how Inez can better sync her own work schedule to her children’s school schedules. Plus, the banquet staff rarely works weekends. In her years in the casino, she gave birth to two more children, plus the two she had when she started are both with her now. Her boyfriend was not in the picture long, so she has been raising four kids as a single mother. “We live poor,” she says, giving an example. One day she would cook a chicken and her family would eat only soup. She would save the meat for the next day. She wishes she could be paid more, adding “years ago I make an account: how much money I need for my rent, how much money I need for everything. One day I was bored and waiting for one event and I think and I sit down and take a piece of paper and I write down. I was behind $150.00 what I really need.” We learn some of her costs and calculations (as of a few years ago) and we infer others. At the time, she earned about $480 a week gross. Take-home pay after mandatory deductions (e.g., Social Security and taxes) would be at best 75 percent of gross or $360. Rent for her tiny apartment was a bargain at $400 a month ($100 per week). Child care cost more than rent, fairly expensive, but Inez got lucky. She found one woman who charged her $50 per week for each of the three younger children that needed care, so that’s $150 a week. Bus fare to and from work ran about $20 per week. Take-home pay minus rent, child care, and transportation left her only $90 per week for everything else—food, utilities, clothing, health care … and things for the kids?! There was no money for short-term savings, no money for retirement, and no money to remit back home to family in El Salvador. No wonder she was short.

Inez put it into perspective for us: “So I work for the babysitting and then for travel. I didn’t have money, I didn’t pay my rent on time. I was waiting for the tax refund to come and give some money for the landlord. He was a good guy, he let me live over there. Every Monday he was waiting for me for the fifty dollar I have to give him. Because at that moment they pay us on Sundays, so Monday morning I have the fifty dollar for him. The rent was $400 dollars so I give the fifty dollar for him every Monday and I, you know, don’t have no money.” Each week, having the landlord wait outside your door to collect rent that is owed because you cannot pay it at the beginning of every month is frightening. She was one step away from eviction and dangerously close to needing to borrow money from a loan shark. Inez said she did everything she could to make it work because she knew in two years she was due for a $2-per-hour raise. Meanwhile, she felt the pain and embarrassment of being a full-time worker and not making ends meet.

Trying to balance work and family can be equally daunting for a single mother. Inez agrees that it really does take a village to raise a family. She draws upon paid help, family, and kinship networks, and feels blessed by the kindness of schoolteachers. And she often feels the classic mother’s guilt, as in when she told her oldest child he has to become responsible. “I say, you’re not allowed to come home during the day. You have to stay in school [laughing]. You’re not allowed to get sick… . You’re not allowed to have a trouble with the school because I don’t have the time to take you at the mid-shift at school.” School opens at 7:30 a.m., so she drops off the kids, then hurries to her 8:00 a.m. shift. After the school day is a real challenge for her. Inez encourages her children to stay after school for projects, clubs, anything that would keep them there and safe.

On several occasions, she was tag-teaming child care with her brother-in-law, who also works at the Taj. He was getting on shift at 4:00 p.m. and she was coming off shift at 4:00 p.m. Allowing for the requirements of reporting early to punch in, there were close calls. Lots of running: her running toward the children in the drive-up circle outside the casino while he was running away toward an employee entrance—almost like handing off the baton in a sprint relay race. Once there was a small time gap of five minutes, so he let the kids into the casino. Children under twenty-one years of age are not allowed in casinos. Security saw them immediately. Inez was afraid she was going to lose her job. She had to plead with the security boss and promise that it would be the only time. Again, she felt remorse. “I take my kids and went to the car and I start crying, as I crazy and my kids are looking at me… . And I was crying for a while in the car and then I said, ‘Sorry guys, it’s not your fault, it’s my fault.’ I’m supposed to give you a better life, but I didn’t have the opportunity to give. So it was funny, now I can see that it was funny but in the moment [I felt guilty.]”

While Inez makes less than $500 per week, Lily makes $200 per shift in tips alone. That’s what makes her feel good, as she has a dollar target in mind to save for her future—a college education, marriage, and a house. Costumed beverage servers such as Lily employed at the Borgata casino are referred to as “Borgata Babes.” She had to audition for the job in the designated costume: short miniskirt, constrictive black halter top designed to reveal cleavage, nude stockings, and very high heels. Her slim and fit appearance, along with her strong cheekbones, dark eyes, and attractive face, seem to be what society deems desirable. She is equal parts Asian and European, differentiating her “look” from other young women her age. For her job interview, Lily pranced around carrying a tray with a bucket of ice, a bottle of champagne, and glasses, and smiled a lot. She recalls that if you got past round one of the audition, you were provided with a rather large packet with details about liquors—where the rums are distilled, the different grades of tequila, the grains used in the vodkas along with their taste and finish, etc. And you left a sample of your hair for drug testing. You returned the next day for a written test. This is where her skills as a college student came in handy. Lily proudly announced that she studied hard for that test, which she passed, and passed muster with the managers. She started serving free cocktails on the casino floor. The casinos ply their gamblers with liquor, and the cocktail servers are part of the entertainment package.

Lily punches her time card at least ten to fifteen minutes before her shift. Management expects that the extra time is needed to arrive and get upstairs. She is then on the clock for an hour in the dressing room, doing her hair, applying makeup, and putting on a uniform. Everything needs to look perfect. No runs in her stockings or panty hose. No pins in her hair, as it needs to be long, blow-dried, and flowing. Earrings, but not too large and not too small—never larger than a quarter. She then squeezes herself into a black-and-white dress, ever so petite. Her uniform size is 00 (double zero), smaller than a zero. It is like a nineteenth-century corset, so tight around her rib cage that she can barely breathe, and constructed with the most advanced push-up bra on the market to make her bust larger than her natural “A” cup. For Christmas, the top is a pink bra with rhinestones and a Santa Claus hat with glitter.

The clock in the dressing room shows 9:00 p.m. The Borgata Babes, as the cocktail servers are called, are lined up, military style. The “girls”—there are only a couple of male servers and they don’t work every shift—are reviewed up and down by their manager. “Those earrings are too large. Looks cheap. Change them.” “I see a run in your stocking.” Unacceptable. Lily and her coworkers head out to the casino floor. There they will spend their shift taking orders, delivering drinks, and fending off leering customers.

Lily loves to tie her long hair back, but on the floor, the women must wear the hair loose. Cameras, the eyes in the sky, are everywhere. Employees can be summoned and sent off the floor if their appearance isn’t perfect. In the middle of calling out, “Beverages, cocktails, coffee,” in her station, Lily was pulled off the floor when her hair was in a bun. Her manager said “That’s not glamorous, we’re supposed to be glamorous here.” She adds another example: “One time [the manager] … went up to security and saw a run in [a Babe’s] stockings though one of the cameras. She called [the Babe] into the bar and said, ‘You need to get new stockings. You have a run in your stockings.’ Psychologically, that’s just like—you feel like eyes are always on you.” A new pair of stockings is not part of the uniform provided by the casino. The cost is borne by the employee (a nice pair is $6-$8), who must always have extras in her locker.

The Babes’ appearances are continuously monitored. So is their weight. Babes cannot eat while on the floor. They have been disciplined for nibbling at the bar; even one olive is verboten. Lily shared a rumor that circulated among cocktail waitresses, that Borgata president Bob Boughner had said, “I don’t want my waitresses looking like the rest of the fat cows in Atlantic City.”

Lily understood her job as a sex object. She had even taken some women’s studies classes at a local college. But she took the job because she needed income quickly. One night, she had a row with her religiously conservative parents and by the next morning she left to set up a new home with her boyfriend. Borgata Babes earn generous tips, over and above a base wage of around $5 per hour. The pay is excellent for a young high school graduate trying to pay for college and buy a home. Borgata Babes who were chosen for the casino’s annual Babe calendar could make extra money, $150. That’s pocket change compared to the casino’s revenue earned from a popular $10 calendar that flew off the shelves.

To survive, she endured a “truly degrading” job, as she calls it. “There was a time when I really felt like—I had always done very well in school, I always thought good about myself when I was in school, that I was capable of doing things. Working there, I came to a point where I just felt like I couldn’t go back. I felt so bad about myself. I felt like that was the only thing I was capable of doing. It’s so strange coming from me because I always felt capable. It does something to you that, you know, like Kafka’s Metamorphosis, you start to see yourself become… . It’s just like that. You criticize it and then you become it. And that’s the worst part. The looks—it’s constant sexual harassment, constant, constant—by employees, by everyone. You walk into the room and all the employees just look and stare you up and down. You bend over to get something and you turn around and you see three pit bosses just checking you out. It’s so disgusting after a while. It just feels disgusting. Not only that, but to be told—for example one of my managers wanted me to stand up, and said, ‘Come on, this is not brain surgery. It’s just cocktail waitressing.’ They just don’t look at you like a human being. As much as they hate to be looked at themselves—because they have bosses too—they look at you the same way. You’re a number. This is all you’re capable of doing. They won’t even talk to you like real human beings.” The undermining of her own sense of herself was what bothered her the most.

There is no bargaining about your hours. Her shifts are seven hours long, with five and one-half hours spent on the floor. There is no complaining about being “mandatoried,” that is, assigned mandatory overtime, even if you need to get home to a sick child. There is little sensitivity to an early out if you feel sick on your shift. If you go to see the casino nurse for any reason, you will be drug tested. Lily remembers, “I went into the bathroom and I heard her [a coworker] in the next stall crying—it was some kind of stomach problem. I said, ‘[Gina], are you okay?’ She said, ‘I’m in pain.’ The way she said it, it brings tears to my eyes right now when I say it now. You just want to scream. You want to say, ‘My God, we are human beings. We are people.’ But you are made to feel threatened that there are ‘ten million girls’ who want to replace you.”

Because paid work is so enmeshed with peoples’ identities, it is not surprising that being a Borgata Babe follows you into your home life and your dreams at night. According to Lily, it’s obsessive: “I never leave that place. And that’s why I really want to quit. It’s not a job you leave when you go home. When you feel that’s all you can do. When you feel degraded the whole day it follows you home. You feel like you’re low the entire day. You feel you belong to the Borgata. It’s not that you go to work. It’s ‘you go home.’ You know what I’m saying? It’s a reversal. You feel like the casino’s doing you a favor by allowing you to go home. That’s what you feel like. It’s so strange when you think that I’m only there for five and a half hours, working for five and a half hours. It follows me on my days off. It’s things that people say or people do, or the way customers need things—it follows you home.”

Who has the better job? The worker who earns more money but experiences a constant assault on her dignity as she is continuously sexualized? Or the worker who takes pride in the small details of her job but is ground down by worries about paying the bills and caring for her children? Hard to say. They are just two single women trying to keep themselves afloat in a society that doesn’t seem to value their hidden skills.