The Squeeze on Service - Just One More Hand: Life in the Casino Economy (2015)

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

Chapter 5

The Squeeze on Service

Many of the frontline service jobs in the casinos have no direct connection with gambling. Working in a casino hotel or restaurant involves many of the same duties as working in regular hotels and restaurants. You check in the guests, make the beds, set and clear the tables, recite menus, take orders, serve the food, mix drinks, and schmooze the customers. With one big difference. Your customers are probably losing money. Most of them expect it and handle it gracefully. Many of them are happy with the comps that you help provide—free drinks, free meals, free shows, free rooms. But not everyone.

Nora, a customer loyalty representative, was hired right after college in a frontline service position at the Borgata. She earned about $11 per hour standing behind the tall customer service desk for an entire shift. The busiest days were when the casino was running special promotions, like giving out prizes, occasionally dearer ones such as Vespa scooters and cars. Attracted to the position because of an interest in marketing, she soon learned that she faced a dead-end career ladder. She was stuck at the desk, signing up new customers, checking points, and explaining promotions and the rewards structure. It was hard to stay on her feet all day. “It was tiring. I mean your legs definitely get sore and cramped but yeah, you have to stand.” Sometimes reps would take their shoes off under the desk, but would quickly put them back on again when the supervisor was near. Because they were gambling away their money, customers expected things in return. “Some of them were very nice and some of them were, you know, awful; they would throw their [loyalty] cards at you if they didn’t agree with it and you just basically had to stay behind your desk and apologize and stand your own and you couldn’t move and you just had to deal with it.” She decided to move on, getting a job in a medical office.

Heather, a married suburban mother with a no-nonsense demeanor, has worked in a casual restaurant in one of the Trump properties for over twenty years. Her work record is spotless, and she enjoys many of her regular customers. When she came back from sick leave, some of them hugged her saying “We missed you!” and “You can’t leave again!” They ask her about her kids. One customer, though, accused her of ignoring him for fifteen minutes, even though the time stamp on his check disproved it. He told her supervisor, “Well, yeah, I lost all this Goddamned money! I don’t want this bitch waiting on me.” Heather refused to put up with the name-calling and asked her supervisor to let someone else serve him. But he got increasingly unruly and they had to call security to remove him.

Walter, a studious-looking waiter who works swing shift in a family-style restaurant, views such customers as a challenge. His job, as he sees it, is to try to make them feel better. Walter told us, “People that lose a lot of money, when they leave me, they are happy and that’s no small talent.” Still, he finds the chronic gamblers who reappear at his station during swing shift depressing: “I recognize when people have a gambling problem. I mean, this is the third day that I’ve fed you this week and you’re here with a thirty-dollar comp… . I look at your clothes and I size you up and I know what you’re talking about and I kind of know a little bit about you now. And I’m going, ‘Why are you here?’ And so I’ve been able to, um, effectively intervene with people that are going down a dangerous path. I mean, I see people start with the thirty-, fifty-dollar comps and then a couple months later it’s twenty, then it’s ten, then it’s five and I realize that they’ve cashed out their house. And that they ruined their kids’ education. But all this time I’ve been a ‘family member,’ feeding them every day or every couple days. And I’ve been able to yell at people and tell them to go home. ‘I fed you yesterday! I went home and went to bed and came back to work today and you’re still here, you haven’t left. You’ve gambled all night!’ And I can call someone on that because I’m a family member now; I’m their waiter. And I’ve been able to, you know, get them to leave. Maybe not long term … but I made them leave one time and I feel good about that… . He’s giving me a big tip for a meal that he’s being comped and he’s a good—he put stuff in my wallet. He’s a good customer but I don’t really need his $5. I need him to go home.”

Guest room attendants (housekeepers), though, see some of gambling’s worst effects in the relatively private spaces of individual hotel rooms. Manuela told us that the customers who were not regular gamblers were the most troubled: “When they get used to come every week, the player know[s] that they gonna sometime win and sometime lose. The only thing that they say is, ‘I’m sorry; I don’t have tip for you because I lost everything this week.’ But when the people are not used to gambling and they come with expectation that they are going to make money and they lost everything… . I got this Cuban guy—he lost everything, even his house. And I found him on the sixteenth floor trying to jump [in the indoor atrium]… . He was in his underwear… . He wanted to jump. If we didn’t get there, maybe he jump.”

Manuela has over two decades of experience cleaning rooms in the casinos to support her family. So she had seen other sad stories where she did not arrive in time. Succinctly put, “But we always find people in the room”—meaning dead bodies. The deaths are usually not suicides, she said, just elderly people who drank more than their bodies could withstand. One patron, shortly before our interview, was dead in the room for three days because he had put up a “DND” or Do Not Disturb sign on his door. Usually, it wouldn’t take so long because “when we see that one room is closed and nobody is coming out of it the whole day, we call the supervisor and say that in that room I did not see any action.” In this case, however, no one noticed until the smell started seeping from the under the door. Finding bodies, people having sex, or evidence of drug use happens often enough to affect how Manuela feels about her work. She claimed that “The worst, I think the worst job in the casino is housekeeping because every time that you open one of those rooms you do not know what you are going to find.”

Of course, on the whole, the day-to-day experiences of these non-gaming frontline service workers in the casinos are less dramatic. The employees we spoke with appreciate their jobs, their coworkers, and many of their customers. But like their colleagues in the gaming pits and tending the slot machines, their work lives have been impacted by changes in the industry—and not for the better. The corporate strategies to attract new demographics and to trim budgets discussed in previous chapters have reshaped what they do and how they do it. Most importantly, their relationships with management, their feelings about how they are treated, and their job security have diminished. Since many service workers are union members (unlike the dealers), they rely more and more on seniority rules to protect them from efforts to replace them with cheaper labor. The dynamics of these changes play out differently for various types of jobs; we can only cover a few representative positions here. We look at cocktail servers, food service workers, and guest room attendants. To set the context, however, we start with the question of who works in these various jobs.

While dealer jobs are relatively integrated, frontline service jobs in casino hotels and restaurants tend to be stratified by race, ethnicity, nationality, and gender. These employment patterns did not originate in the casinos; they have a long history in the service sector. Many service jobs are rooted in the kinds of tasks that women traditionally did as unpaid household labor. Gradually, this housework has been commodified, that is, it has become something the middle class pays others to do instead of doing it themselves. From the late nineteenth century to the early twentieth century, U.S. middle-class households started to emulate the practice of the wealthy in paying for servants and other domestic workers. The location did not change, but who did the work evolved. Who was available varied regionally as waves of immigrants settled in different locations, but the general pattern was that women of European descent left domestic service and the work became associated with African American women, Latinas, and other minority women.[1]

In the late twentieth century, the next phase of commodification took place. Paid domestic labor left the home and became the basis for the expansion of service sector businesses like fast food, child care, nursing homes, and home cleaning services. Because this work was thought of as “women’s work,” new opportunities arose for women in the labor force. Middle-class mothers increased their labor force participation and attachment. At the same time, these busy working mothers expanded the market for the services that employ women. But the historical legacy of domestic service continued to shape employment patterns, according to sociologist Evelyn Nakano Glenn. White women (and sometimes men) tend to be favored in the frontline jobs. In contrast, Glenn found that “Racial-ethnic women are employed to do the heavy, dirty, ‘back-room’ chores of cooking and serving food in restaurants and cafeterias [and] cleaning rooms in hotels and office buildings.”[2]

Despite progress in occupational integration, these patterns have largely continued into the twenty-first century. In a 2013 book, Behind the Kitchen Door, Restaurant Opportunities Center United founder Saru Jayaraman observed: “Again and again, I saw the pattern. Even when the front of the house was a little more diverse, the workers in the back were almost always darker than the workers in the front.” Of course, the higher-status, managerial and professional positions in kitchens, such as chefs and butchers, are often the terrain of white men. Later she added, “People are segregated in the restaurant industry by position within the restaurant (server, busser, dishwasher), segment of restaurant industry (fine-dining, family-style, or fast-food), and location (poor, middle-class, or upper-class neighborhood).”[3] African American men have the most difficulty breaking into frontline service jobs, according to a study by Philip Moss and Chris Tilly.[4] Beyond individual bias, they may face institutional barriers like policies requiring workers to be clean-shaven. Since African American men with curly hair are far more likely to have a condition called pseudofolliculitis barbae that makes it difficult to shave, such policies have been considered discriminatory in their impact.[5]

Similarly, hotels, as a “home away from home,” mirror traditional gender roles in how work is allocated, according to Amel Adib and Yvonne Guerrier. Men are concentrated in management, craft, and semi-skilled positions, but women serve the guests. Ethnic minority and immigrant women wind up with the dirty work, while lighter-skinned women are in jobs where they need to be “friendly, helpful and sexually attractive.”[6] Adib and Guerrier found that workers know which hotel job categories are considered appropriate and inappropriate for people like them, and what this means in terms of the expectations for their behavior and persona on the job.

We do not have formal data on the employment patterns in the casinos, but our interviews indicate that the findings of previous researchers hold true. The reasons for the stratification of casino employment are complicated, involving the preferences of individual workers, language skills, the influence of cultural norms, and employer hiring practices. The work of serving cocktails is gendered female. Evidence supplied by the Borgata in a lawsuit, for example, indicated that between February 2005 and December 2010, 646 females and 46 males were employed as cocktail servers called Borgata Babes.[7] Bartenders and bar porters are disproportionately male in the casinos, but women do mix drinks too. Guest room attendants are largely female immigrants.

Food service, both in the front and in the back of the house, follows familiar complex hierarchies of gender, race, and ethnicity. African Americans sometimes have difficulty breaking into positions that directly serve customers. Especially men. Jesse, an African American man, said it took years to move from backroom and security jobs into a dealer position. He wore a beard, and said that most of the black men he knew did as well. But the first casino he worked at had rules about being clean-shaven. Another had a policy that permitted only certain mustache and beard styles and supplied employees with sketches of beard styles that were and were not permitted. Jesse reported to us that the image of the banned Fu Manchu beard, which he associated with African American men, also depicted a man with thicker lips. He viewed the rules as discriminatory, sending a message about who would be hired.

As the casinos have increasingly brought in new ethnic groups and diversified their workforce, who works where has evolved. But there are still hierarchies. Isiah, a dark-skinned Latino, started in the kitchen as a runner (bringing food to the buffets) before his English improved enough to transition to becoming a dealer. Chefs and cooks are white or occasionally African American, he said, but everyone else in the kitchen is “Spanish” or from India. Keith, who is white, had worked with very few African Americans in the high-end restaurants where he spent most of his career. But he had witnessed some changes as other minority groups moved from the back to the front of the house: “Latinos in the kitchen, in all capacities. Another broad stroke, I’d say Pakistanis, Indians are coming on the floor [working as servers]… . And of course before then, it was the Asians: Filipinos and Chinese; they are still, but that’s changing.”

In contrast with the extensive literature on occupational segregation by gender, race, and ethnicity, we know much less about the occupational profiles of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered workers. There is a paucity of data, and studies thus far have focused on demonstrating the existence of wage penalties and employment discrimination rather than occupational distribution.[8] One early study did find some occupational differences between lesbians and heterosexual women and between gay and heterosexual men. The authors hypothesized that some lesbians and gay men may gravitate toward occupations with higher levels of tolerance, but their results were inconclusive.[9] A more recent study indicated that both lesbians and gay men are more likely to work in gender-atypical occupations than their heterosexual counterparts.[10]

In our study, we interviewed four self-identified lesbians and had informal conversations with several gay men in the industry (who were not in frontline jobs). One of the women, a former pit boss, said that she felt attitudes in the industry changing. When she first started in the industry in 1979, she wasn’t “as open.” She would run into coworkers at local gay bars but to the rest of her colleagues her personal life was a mystery. She remembered being asked by one supervisor to wear more dresses, and was able to deflect the request by saying she was uncomfortable with the shape of her legs. Still, the industry was more accepting than other places she had worked. Based on our conversations, lesbians and gay men in the industry have created informal social networks that intersected work and community to support each other. One story we heard involved the early days of the AIDS crisis and going to a supervisor to quietly explain why one relatively closeted gay man was seriously ill. One couple we interviewed, both in the industry, were highly closeted. Still, those we spoke with agree, the industry, like the larger culture, is becoming more openly accepting.

Gambling, smoking, and drinking—the three vices seem to go hand in hand. There are plenty of places to drink at a casino. There are bars and cocktail lounges, some with live music, that could be mistaken for any chic urban watering hole. Casino restaurants serve drinks and offer patrons stools where they can chat with the bartenders and grab a bite to eat. Increasingly, the casinos offer high-end nightclubs with celebrity deejays providing dance music, bottle service instead of individual drinks, and a youthful crowd dropping lots of money. But for those gamblers glued to the slot machines or looking for a hot streak at the tables, the casinos offer free drinks brought right to where they sit or stand, by cocktail servers who receive tips for their labors. In fact, cocktail servers who work on the casino floor need to be licensed by the state, as do any other employees directly involved in gaming.

We interviewed three cocktail waitresses at different stages in their careers. Ruth, who worked the gaming floors handing out drinks for decades, retired when her fifty-something-year-old body could no longer do the job she loved. Lily, a twenty-something Borgata Babe, worked her way up from the floor to bottle service at a club called mur.mur. But she quit because she found the environment and treatment of employees toxic. Zoe has been plying free drinks to gamblers since Day One. She is matter-of-fact about the work, but is volunteering more with her union out of frustration with changes at the Caesars-owned properties.

Zoe prefers working on the casino floor to working in a cocktail lounge: “Number one, you were not responsible for any checks, any money. It was just free drinks. The more drinks that you could pump out, the more [tips] you made so you were responsible for only your, only what you wanted to make that day yourself. You didn’t have to wait around for someone to come into your lounge… . The casino floor was where you wanted to be.” That sentiment was true for Ruth as well. She described the job as “like being in business for yourself.” Ruth enjoyed the hustle and proudly claimed, “I worked no harder if the boss was on the floor, or in the building, out of the building, I could have cared less. I was there to pick up every dollar that was out there. I needed no supervision.” The younger server, Lily, saw things differently. After a few years of serving drinks to gamblers on the casino floor, Lily had the opportunity to transfer to a swanky, new Borgata nightclub—one of the first to introduce bottle service. Customers would routinely spend $1,000-$5,000 per night, so the tips were four or five times higher. In order to get a table, a group had to purchase a minimum number of bottles, more bottles on a crowded Saturday night than a slower evening.

Cocktail service is a job that perfectly illustrates the concept of “doing gender.” Feminist scholars argue that our gender identities are not anchored in our biology. They are social constructions produced through our daily activities, as we behave in ways that conform (or don’t conform) with social norms and that differentiate us (or don’t) from the opposite gender. Gender, in this view, is partly a performance.[11] Cocktail servers and their customers routinely perform gender. For example, when we asked about the qualities it takes to do her job well, college graduate Zoe told us, “The funny part about it is… . One of my favorite sayings, when people … get real complicated on their order or they ask all sorts of technical stuff, and I always kind of look at them and say ‘Look, you know,’ and I say it in a cute way, ‘I applied for this job in a bikini. Don’t make it too hard.’” And then she proceeded to share the many invisible interpersonal skills needed to get more tips, to avoid conflicts with handsy customers, and to diplomatically cut off customers who’ve had too much to drink.

As noted in chapter 3, however, newer or revamped casinos accentuating upscale demographics are increasingly hiring younger cocktail servers, altering uniforms to be more revealing, and marketing the sexuality of their employees. Appearances are monitored closely. When Ruth was hired in 1979, she interviewed in a business suit. Her uniforms changed every few years, and she thought that “One worse than the next… . They could have designed the coolest uniforms that could have relatively flattered anyone. No. Over the years, you could imagine in twenty-six years I saw a lot of uniforms. We never had, like today, the sleazy type uniforms.”

In contrast to when Ruth was hired, Lily had a very different interview experience in the contemporary era. She reached out to us for a follow-up interview because she wanted to describe what she went through to land a promotion to bottle service. The audition and socialization process was more extensive than the earlier interview and exam she had completed for the casino gaming floor position. This new job orientation was probably unique, since it took place when the club was first opening. It illuminates, however, the changing corporate culture that is increasingly sexualizing employees in cocktail service and other jobs. In this case, she felt sexually harassed by a manager who was about to become her boss.

Several women, including Lily, accompanied managers in a limousine for a long night on the town in New York City. They visited four or five posh nightclubs to get a sense of what Borgata was trying to replicate in Atlantic City. Lily recalled: “By the time we got done with the second one (it might have been the third one), one of our managers was completely drunk. And I was dancing with one of my girlfriends who was gonna be working at the club. He came up behind me, and started dancing with me. And he said, very quickly, he said, ‘Oh, you’re definitely getting the best shift.’” Even though the job really didn’t have different shifts, his behavior stung. She was disappointed in herself for not increasing the physical distance between them and responding more forcefully. “It’s such an awkward position. Because you want to say to yourself, if that happened—which I always thought—I would definitely just say, you know, come right out and you know, be very forward about it, and you know, really confront, confront the person. And I found myself having that kind of nervous laugh about it. And then later, you’re like, ‘God, why didn’t I just, like, yell at him, and just say something?’” On the ride home, the same manager tried to put his head in her lap and his hand up her leg. This time she told him it was “not okay.” She knew she could report him, but she said that “economic and social factors” stopped her. So he became one of her bosses, continuing to make suggestive comments periodically.

Sexual harassment from both managers and customers occurs no matter how a woman dresses and it affects employee morale. A study in the Journal of Gambling Studies found that casino employees who reported being sexually harassed were less satisfied with their jobs, less committed to the organization, and more likely to quit, as Lily did; she is now in graduate school.[12] Of course, higher turnover rates do not always trouble employers if they prefer to cycle in a younger, fresher crop of employees at the bottom of the wage scale. Other studies support the idea that employees in sexualized jobs are more likely to view harassment as part of the job and are therefore less likely to view it as a problem. For them, their work role is a sex role.[13] For example, Zoe has no problems calling security and rolling the security film if a customer is out of line. But she also sees dealing with sexual harassment as part of the job: “I knew going in, like I said, I interviewed in a bikini, so I knew that, going in twenty-eight years ago that that would be part of it. So, I’m not overly sensitive about that. I have seen people that are.” Ruth felt her uniform helped her separate her role at work from her real identity: “Somehow you can put this on and you can be a different person. You can step into the role; like an actress… . It helps you get into the mode of, you know, this is not me.”

Ruth also insisted that inappropriate behavior was rare: “How many thousands of people must I have waited on over the years? Most people … and I would say most of the girls would say the same thing, they were nice.” She could only remember calling security once: “One night, I did have a guy, I’m walking down the aisle and he grabbed my ass. I nearly died. But you don’t take it as offensively as today’s age. It never occurred to me to file some kind of charge against him, nor would it even today. He grabbed my ass, he obviously had too much to drink… . I cursed him out. I embarrassed him… . I might have told a security guard, ‘Get this jerk outta here.’ But one time in twenty-six years? I mean, this could happen in an office for God’s sake. I’m sure it happens more frequently in an office.”[14]

Lily, in contrast with Ruth, found that the culture and managerial policies at the bottle club made harassment by customers commonplace, even though an employer can be held legally liable if a provocative uniform or other policies are viewed as inviting harassment.[15] In her words, “It’s just considered part of the atmosphere, part of what is expected in the job.” All-male tables would often treat their club experience like a proverbial bachelor party. She described herself at work: “Here I am, I’m like half-naked, and I’m dolled up, and I’m here to serve you. And the outfits, you see how short they are. I have to bend over to pour drinks. I have to bend in front of them… . They see me like that. And they look and treat me like they see me, which is like a piece of meat.” Her job was to say, “Here’s your menu; just let me know what you would like.” She said a common response was, “Are you on the menu?” Touching the servers was formally against club rules. So Lily would report this behavior—grabbing her butt or brushing her breasts—at least once or twice a week. Then one of the managers told her that she was the server who had the most people kicked out of the club. It seemed more like a warning than an innocent comment. More like, “Just loosen up.”

Management also encouraged servers to dance on the dance floor. Professional dancers were paid to get up on a platform to dance. But one box was always left empty for a server. Another box was left empty for customers—but specifically women or girls. If a male customer got up there, Lily reported, he would be asked to get down. The length of time a server was instructed to dance on the box depended on who the customer was. Spending more money meant more time watching your server dance for you. The dance requirement might have been a clever tactic to forestall discrimination complaints. A loophole in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bars employment discrimination against protected classes, allows the sex of the employee to be a bona fide occupational qualification (BFOQ) only in narrow circumstances. Entertainers are one permissible category, so sexualization of various casino jobs is sometimes accompanied by adding the word “entertainment” to their job title.

Lawsuits based on various practices related to appearance have been lodged by cocktail servers against Borgata, Resorts, and Golden Nugget, though none have been successful so far.[16] In the case brought by Borgata Babes, they contested the policy that they could gain no more than 7 percent of their body weight. Among their allegations, some of the servers asserted that managers encouraged them to take laxatives to lose weight. Superior Court Judge Nelson Johnson, author of Boardwalk Empire, issued a summary judgment letting the policy stand, insisting that “Plaintiffs cannot shed the label babe; they embraced it when they went to work for Borgata.” He also noted that the audition for the job implied that they were part entertainers.[17]

The Borgata, however, is not the only venue that has hypersexualized their servers. Harrah’s was accused by about forty employees of creating a “culture of accepted sexual harassment” at the Pool, a nightclub surrounding the swimming pool where the cocktail servers wear swimsuits. One manager in particular was accused in thirteen different lawsuits of pressuring female employees to drink on duty and then making verbal and physical advances. Two male employees claimed they suffered retaliation when they tried to report the harassment, and managers in human resources were sued for covering up the problems. The outcomes of the cases are still undetermined.[18]But they speak to a disturbing pattern.

Not every casino is following the extreme model of sexualization that Borgata and Harrah’s have adopted, and observers argue that sex is a much more dominant narrative in Las Vegas. But the practice is becoming more commonplace and changing what was a secure, unionized career into the kind of short-term job that burns out employees quickly. During Ruth’s career, she and her coworkers aged in place. As she observed, “We may have started young, but we all ended up old there.” If the casinos no longer want older women serving cocktails, Zoe argued, they could pay the servers enough to be able to retire or help them transition to other jobs, instead of firing them or pressuring them to quit. But, as one legal scholar analyzing casino employment practices has observed, “When a job has a sexual component, people assume that there are few other qualifications needed for the job.”[19] Such assumptions tend to depress wage rates and block career mobility.

Zoe is the only one of the three still on the job, but will not be there much longer. Her workplace, Showboat, has experimented with the iApp system where “cocktail ambassadors” take drink orders electronically or customers place their orders on touch screens. Her job now involves only delivering the next tray of drinks, as described in chapter 1. Her work is timed so there is no leeway to chat with customers, eroding both job satisfaction and tips. Some of her coworkers and her union have tried to petition the Division of Gaming Enforcement (DGE) to rule against the practice. One aspect of the job that was both challenging and a source of pride for Zoe and others was the legal requirement to monitor how much customers have consumed and to cut off drunks. Local 54 is arguing that the new system prevents cocktail servers from performing this function. But Caesars argues that the system reduces their staff requirements and consequently costs.[20] The DGE determined that the union had to take up the issue through the collective bargaining process and refused to intervene.

For Zoe, the job is no longer fun. And it’s hard to explain that to her old customers. Zoe lamented, “I still have people that come, long-term people that will come and look for me. I can’t serve them any longer and I can’t talk to them anymore because I’m being timed.” She used to “know their whole families” and was “invited to their weddings” but that’s been taken away. She told us she was looking forward to retiring or moving on to something else in a few years. But she knows that her pension, fully vested after ten years as negotiated by her union, is substantially less than those of the bartenders (mostly male) who mix the drinks for her. The cocktail servers have worked 32.5 hours per week for decades, while the bartenders have a normal 40-hour work week. Pension contributions are based on the number of hours worked, so “a bartender that works forty hours and has worked the same amount of years that I might have worked is probably, his pension is going to be higher than my pension.”

She was trying to hold on for a few more years until her husband retires and their kids have left the nest. Until, that is, Caesars announced its intention to close Showboat. Now she will be forced out sooner than planned. She isn’t ready for retirement, so she is looking outside the industry—as are thousands of other employees about to lose their jobs. In fact, she is contemplating working for her international union, to go, as she told us, wherever the fight is.

Casinos typically offer at least as many dining options as bars. Some gamblers want minimal interruption for nutrition and look for a quick bite from a food court, noodle bar, or café. A middle-income gambler might play just enough to get one or two free comps to an all-you-can-eat buffet and feel satiated by the transaction. High rollers, on the other hand, can be given hard-to-get tables at expensive enclaves. Destination dining establishments bearing the names of celebrity chefs draw in patrons who hustle past the smoke and the dinging slot machines just for a good meal. The working conditions across these establishments can vary as much as the food. Most of the workers are covered by the Local 54 contracts, but some private restaurants are permitted to hire nonunion labor, a compromise following a 2004 strike. Overall, however, servers and the employees who support them from behind the scenes report that their jobs are becoming harder and harder. Cutbacks in staff mean a speed-up for servers, with less time to interact with customers and consequently fewer tips.

The food servers we interviewed, all white, had each worked in the casinos for more than fifteen years. Both of the waiters with experience in fine dining, Peter (a married father) and Keith (divorced), were male. Keith’s chic restaurant for high rollers had closed, and when we spoke he was juggling multiple jobs at two different casinos, both facing possible closure. Walter, who is single, had worked in a coffee shop for years. Heather, married with children, had seen her casual restaurant transition through various names and identities, and kept her seniority through the changes. We also interviewed one Latina, Inez, a single mother who worked in the back of the house, washing dishes and prepping for banquets. They are all union members, though they varied in their level of activism. All of them indicated pride in their ability to provide good service and frustration with institutional changes that make it harder to meet the standards they set for themselves.

Food servers try to find self-respect in their jobs. Sometimes the working conditions or attitudes of their supervisors make this difficult. Walter, for example, revealed that “I look after my own work; I control my work, I understand my work; I’m proud of my work… . But a lot of my coworkers suffer from low self-esteem because they are only food servers.” He wishes management recognized the professionalism of their staff: “I have a college professor from Mexico in mathematics as a dishwasher… . I have people that are highly literate in Spanish and are teachers… . There’s this whole ‘You’re just the help’ kind of thing going on.” Inez, not surprisingly, made similar comments, observing that supervisors assume that if you do not speak English you must not be smart. Snap judgments are made: “If they see something dirty in my t-shirt … they can see me in a different way. They don’t realize how much work I do to make this happen.” She added, “So you know, sometimes we feel like they think we are the lowers, like people who don’t have anything. They don’t know who we are.” But, in her mind, “My money is same as your money. I can buy anything with twenty dollar as you.”

The employees keenly felt the loss when they could no longer provide the level of service they previously provided due to changes in corporate priorities. Good service takes time. Keith and Peter both worked their way up to the position of captain at high-end restaurants in the days when a team of servers catered to the high rollers who were comped meals in the most exclusive restaurants on their properties. Keith reminisced, “You could not walk through that restaurant door unless you had played $100,000.” He took pride in the work: “Initially, it was elegant, beautiful, difficult but rewarding. It was interacting with people and making a good living. All of those things. And interacting with your coworkers, management, feeling value, all of these things that you would expect to fulfill your, you know, your sense of person. Now, here we are, production, we are, that’s what we are. How can you produce more? That’s really what it is.”

Keith never carried a tray in the old days. They either wheeled the food out on a cart or carried individual plates by hand. The experience was elevated, and there was less wear and tear on servers’ backs and knees. Now he is serving burgers and carrying heavy trays. Despite being fit, he feels the change physically. And he misses the autonomy that the teams had to cater to the needs of their customers. These days the supervision is much more direct and the managers show employees less respect: “Now, I have to say that I see managers curse at employees and get away with it. I mean, when I say curse, I mean, just screaming at them, f-bombing them, just, it’s so different.” Peter agrees. He thinks it was actually more efficient to have more servers because you needed fewer supervisors. But management’s attitude has changed: “They think it’s too many people taking care of one table, which I think, sometimes, you need more eyes on a table. You don’t need a manager behind you, you know, just chirping in your ear, bringing you down. You need people lifting you up all day long.”

Even working in a coffee shop, Walter saw a difference. In the earlier days, he said, the casinos were more service-oriented. Today, it’s “Turn and burn. Turn the table over and get ’em in and get ’em out.” At the same time the pace has been increasing, his stations have gotten larger. Now he covers six tables instead of four. So he has to prioritize, based on who is likely to tip well: “If you have six tables, you can’t be giving them all good service, and you’re picking who you’re not giving good service to. As much as my boss likes to pretend that I can do the work [that I did with four tables], I can’t. So, I’m saying, ‘Well, you’re done!’ And I’m concentrating on the other four or the other three or the other five.” Walter enjoys educating his customers about food, telling us: “I have a very big rap about getting people to try new things… . I’ll teach them about coffee or chocolate or different kinds of olive oil… . Some of my coworkers think I’m wasting my time from turning and burning, but I think in the long run that’s what I want to do.” It is harder and harder to find time for these small satisfactions.

Increasing station size is just one impact among many of staff reductions. Heather now has to ring up her own checks. And if patrons walk out without paying, management tries to dock it from her pay. Walter claims, “It’s not doing the same work I was doing twenty years ago. It’s doing more work. There used to be a lot of help. There were traditionally bus people to help food servers. And that, there has been a reduction in the number of bus people that are available. So where I used to maybe share a bus person with another food server, maybe that bus person might have four food servers to help out… . I think those are the primary reasons for what I would call job speed-up.” Keith says there are more expectations for servers to stock supplies and clean. In the back of the house, Inez has seen a lot of firings. It is harder to get forty hours of work per week, and overtime is a thing of the past. At the end of a long day loading and unloading dishes, lifting, and carrying, she feels like “not any part of my body is working.”

Food servers and kitchen workers in the casinos have union jobs so their base pay and benefits are generally higher than comparable workers outside the industry. But the servers still rely on tips to pay the bills. Walter proudly admits, “I’m considered a tip hustler; I can get money out of a stone.” But under his sped-up working conditions, it’s getting harder: “As I’ve been getting older, I’ve been getting slower so I can’t get by on sheer speed, what other servers do. I have to get it with finesse and that turns three-dollar tips into four-dollar tips and one-time customers into regular customers. There is no relationship between the bigger the check is, the more your tips. There is a relationship between the better your interaction with the customer is, the bigger your tip is.”

Heather’s response to the changes has been to distance herself from her work. She feels that management “kinda just forgot about the employees.” Her base salary was up to over $8 per hour, so she had to be on her guard: “We always feel they’re always out to get the Day One people who could be replaced with cheaper newcomers.” So, she confided, “I kinda changed my attitude over the years. I don’t really want to take anything in this job too seriously. It is six hours a day of my life and that’s it. I have a whole world outside of this place.” Peter is still a bundle of energy and enthusiasm for his work. But after trying a stint in management and experiencing a callous response to a family crisis, he needs to put work behind him at the end of his shift and concentrate on his family and community. Keith thinks things have degraded to the point of “an open struggle between management and workers.” He is “fed up with it” and hoping to move on soon. With both his employers on the verge of closing, he may not have a choice. Inez worries about how much longer she can do her job. She does not have the savings to think about retiring, at least not here in the United States. But her work is “hard and heavy” and she cannot see herself still doing the job ten years from now. She thinks she may have to transfer to something that pays less or go back to her country of origin.

Part of the skill set of hotel guest room attendants (GRAs) is that all the work they do is meant to stay relatively invisible. Ideally the GRA slips in and out while the guest is gone for the day. Guests tend to notice the tasks that were overlooked, not the work done well. Much of the communication is nonverbal. Guest and worker may smile briefly as they pass in the hall. A guest might leave a note of appreciation with the tip or ask her for some extra supplies. Depending on hotel policy, the GRA might leave a note or a chocolate on the pillow. Social invisibility surrounds cleaning staff in many settings, from domestic servants to janitorial services. And immigrants are often hired for cleaning and other jobs where social invisibility is expected.[21] It is also not surprising that GRAs tend to be female since women are viewed as naturally adept at cleaning domestic spaces.

Their jobs are both familiar and unfamiliar to guests. Most people who stay at hotels know something about how to make a bed or clean a bathroom. But most of us haven’t considered how the GRA’s workload is allocated or monitored. What does she do if a DND sign on the door prevents her from keeping on schedule? How does her employer distribute the work when one room is “dirty vacant” and the next is only a “makeup” (guest staying over)? Who keeps track of her progress and where she is at any given moment?

Both of the guest room attendants whom we met were immigrants who used to be teachers in their country of origin. Most of their coworkers, they reported, are Latina, Indian, or Bangladeshi. Both of them followed their husbands to the United States and found their way to Atlantic City in search of a better life financially. Manuela’s sister already had a job at Harrah’s when Manuela decided to leave her husband and move out of the Bronx. For ten years, she balanced two housekeeping jobs; now that her kids are grown, she just has one. Aparna did not know what housekeeping was when her husband took her to the personnel office. But she was glad that her job offers a nine-to-five schedule, rare in the industry. Both GRAs were trained by coworkers when they first started.

These two proud women are employed by two different casinos. Aparna’s employer, Tropicana, has maintained the typical work process that assigns most housekeepers to specific floors and rooms. Energetic and optimistic, Aparna has a fairly positive attitude about her job. Manuela’s employer is experimenting with a system apparently designed by “efficiency experts.” She feels like “just a number” to her employer, whose new system has made doing her job well even harder. The changes have made her more militant about helping her union stand up to the employer.

Even though they are socially invisible to many of their customers, they have the same kinds of stories of bonding with regulars that we heard from dealers, food servers, and others in frontline service jobs. Regular gamblers come back to their favorite casinos. Some of them, especially those who are superstitious, like to stay on their favorite floors. Those who do will get to know the guest room attendants. And, as for so many service employees, ongoing relationships with customers give the job meaning. Aparna is proud when one of her customers asks for her floor, and insists that the tips are not what motivates her: “We’re not doing the job because of the tip. Because of the guest. Because we want to do them a nice service.” Having them come back is a sign that she has done her job well.

Aparna and her coworkers must complete 14 “credits” per shift. In a simple example, that would be 14 rooms, with some being rooms where the guests have checked out (called a “dirty vacant”) and others mid-stay rooms (called “makeups”). But rooms are different sizes. A bigger room counts as 1.5 credits and suites can be 2 or 3 credits. If a guest has a DND sign outside the door, the guest room attendant loses the credit and is assigned an additional makeup room, if there is one. If a room is “too messy,” she reports it and gets assistance or gets credit for the extra work. So there is some flexibility in the system to make adjustments. Overtime can be mandatory. Her progress through her section is monitored by using the phone in the room when she enters to dial into a computer and enter her code. If a guest takes items like extra shampoo off of her cart, it means an extra trip back to the supply closet.

Manuela works at a Caesars-owned property—the same company that introduced the iApp system to make cocktail service more efficient. There is a new system for cleaning rooms that has squeezed much of the enjoyment out of her work as well: the TIDY program. First, the program increased the number of credits she must complete to 16; she used to do 14 like Aparna. The big change in the system, though, is called looping. A computer keeps track of her credits and sends her to different floors and different parts of the building to meet her quota, combining dirty vacants with makeups. She can no longer take extra care on one aspect of the job one day, and focus on another aspect of the same room the next day. She can’t double back and fix something because she is several floors away. And she is much less likely to have regular customers. In the old days, “We used to get our guest’s last name. So when you was coming into that room, I want to pull your last name and make you feel like home. I know you, we used to take our time to clean those rooms.”

And cleaning the rooms is more complicated than it used to be. In a competitive casino economy, the hotels are in an arms race to increase amenities for the guests. Manuela wants recognition for the added work involved in each room: “There was no refrigerator in that room. No six pillows like now. Now we have six pillows on each bed, a refrigerator… . We have a coffee maker. We have more to do. It is time for the company to recognize what we do.” From Manuela’s perspective, the focus on a younger customer demographic is not a step in the right direction. Their hard partying also makes her job more difficult. But, she pointed out next, she and her coworkers have not received a raise in ten years. She is stuck at $14.42 per hour, which is better than the salary for the new hires. Once again, we heard that management is targeting workers with seniority, presumably hoping to hire new employees for a lower starting wage or to not replace them at all.

She is acutely aware from her union that Caesars Entertainment is owned by the “hedge fund.” And that the company is saddled with debt and struggling. It saddens her that properties that once were rated five stars are becoming run down. She goes through the list—Bally’s, Harrah’s, Showboat, and Caesars—and claims “They are dirty. The guests are not happy. They don’t make no money and they treat all their employees very bad.” Borgata was a good employer in her mind, as was Atlantic Club before it closed. But too many of the other houses are cutting back on benefits. The city, she said, has changed since when she arrived in the early 1990s: “When I move here, there was a place where you can find a lot of work. The pay was good… . I think it was growing, Atlantic City was in progress. Everything has changed in that twenty years. It’s not the same town that was before… . It’s going back to like it was, Atlantic City was before. It was ugly. The pay was no good… . Workers here, they don’t care about us no more. They only care about making the profit.”

Managerial strategies to rebrand the casinos and cost cutting by owners perceived as detached from day-to-day operations are reshaping the work experiences of frontline service employees, affecting their perceptions of job quality. There are similar themes in many of their stories, just as there were among the dealers and gaming supervisors depicted in chapter 4. Tangible returns from work—wages and benefits—are no longer what they once were. Belonging to a union garners some protections that unorganized workers lack, as described in more detail in the next chapter. Given the highly stratified nature of these varied jobs and the workers in them, however, there are some unique perspectives from people in different occupations. And casino owners have chosen to respond to the pressures of competition in ways that have distinctive impacts on specific jobs. While some cocktail servers, for example, are increasingly sexualized as part of the rebranding, the four Caesars properties are focused on cost cutting via the iApp system. These managerial strategies are choices, and each has its own pluses and minuses.

If, as we contend, a good job is one that helps you create a life, then pay and benefits are critical. The pay in these jobs varied. Inez and Manuela struggle to support their children as single mothers in jobs that pay more than they would in a nonunion environment, but were still relatively low-wage. Lily could save up enough money during a short stint serving cocktails to pay for college and buy a house with her boyfriend. While she hated the demeaning aspects of her job, it paid well. Their union helps negotiate and administer their benefits, including health care and pensions. Heather said that the benefits were the main reason she continued to work. Several employees emphasized their defined benefit pension plan as important, and something they were having to fight with their employers to maintain. Other workers emphasized the importance of their jobs in providing for their families. The problem, they all agreed, is that full-time jobs with decent wages and fully paid benefits are fast disappearing. And for the jobs where tips matter, the drop in patrons due to market saturation has affected take-home pay.

Career ladders in many frontline service occupations are short and less specific than the promotion ladder for dealers. Cocktail servers do not see much opportunity for upward mobility. Other employees expressed reluctance to take advantage of limited advancement opportunities when they were presented because they would forfeit the security of union representation. In union positions, seniority rather than favoritism determined such working conditions as how shifts were allocated. The grievance procedure protects them from arbitrary dismissal. And when a short career ladder means small financial rewards for moving up a rung but limited chances beyond the next step, staying put seems safer. This was why Aparna turned down the opportunity to become a supervisor. Several waiters we spoke with had started out in the kitchen or as bussers. In the old system, you could advance from server to captain before becoming a maître d’ (or maître d’hotel) as Peter did. These days, however, the hosts and hostesses that greet guests are usually in a deskilled position that greets and seats but is not actually managing the staff.

But building a life is about more than material provisioning. It requires time away from the job and supportive institutions, including employers who treat their workers as human beings with complex lives. The phrase “just a number” kept coming up. Every employee has a number that indicates his or her rank in terms of seniority, and more frequently it seems that this is their only identity to upper management. These complaints were particularly vocalized by Caesars employees and workers at other properties emphasizing efficiency and cost reductions. In contrast, the Borgata, which markets itself as upscale, generally gets good grades from workers (other than Lily) for its treatment of them. Even the food is better in their cafeteria, we were told. In fact, Borgata has tried to skim off the cream by stealing the best employees in addition to well-heeled customers.

As with the dealers, the 24/7 nature of the industry takes its toll on work-life balance for employees in many of these jobs. Some workers, like Aparna, deliberately avoided becoming dealers so that they could work nine-to-five. In fact, one of the attractions of the GRA positions was the regularity of the work schedule. This was true of employees in other back-of-the-house jobs. Dario, an inventory control clerk, wanted a job where he could spend time with his children so he decided to stay off the casino floor.

Food and beverages, though, are available at all hours. Walter complained, “It has a tax on other parts of my life, like, I have no social life. Nights and weekends, I always work, and holidays.” He continued by telling a story: “One year, I don’t know what happened, but it was like 7:00 and they had too many servers. And it was New Year’s Eve, and they said ‘Do you want to go home?’ And I walked outside and it was 7:00 and I had no idea what to do on New Year’s Eve at 7:00. I had never made plans for New Year’s Eve in my whole life! I was always at work.” Peter tried the traditional male fast track into management but discovered it didn’t pay off the way he thought it would. Now, as a waiter, he still works nights and weekends, but usually clocks out at a decent hour. His restaurant shifted everyone, even senior workers, to shorter hours, but as long as he works more than thirty-two hours per week he has access to benefits. Heather worked breakfast and lunch, even though the morning shift paid less, to have a better schedule for her family. Her life was organized with military precision to take care of her family, function on the job, and pursue a college degree.

Having health insurance matters, but when you have illnesses and injuries, you still need an employer who permits you to deal with personal issues. Heather’s son had a serious illness, and she was able to take a leave of absence without too much difficulty. The experiences of other workers varied. Having seniority helped. Both Ruth and Zoe have problems with their feet, after years of carrying heavy trays in high heels during their six-hour shifts on the floor. If a cocktail server provides medical documentation, she can get dispensation to wear flat shoes instead of heels. But the long-term wear and tear on the body of many of these jobs is intense due to so much standing, walking, bending, lifting, and carrying. Even something as simple as making one bed after another, year in and year out, can cause back and wrist injuries. Every long-term server and housekeeper had some kind of nagging injury.

Exposure to chemicals also impacts workers’ health and well-being. Both Aparna and Manuela supply their own gloves. In fact, Manuela said her leadership role at work started when a coworker asked to borrow her gloves to clean up vomit. Manuela told the supervisor if they didn’t start supplying gloves, she would contact OSHA. So now gloves are supplied, but she still finds the ones she buys herself sturdier. If asked, the GRAs can get masks. And if they develop a reaction to a particular chemical, they are supplied something different. Walter has filed OSHA complaints. Restaurant kitchens, he observed, are dangerous places. One OSHA complaint had to do with storage and handling of industrial equipment like slicers, mixers, revolving ovens, and blenders. The other came about because he noticed that the outside cleaning service wore extensive protection while using chemicals to clean the kitchens. But the regular staff was expected to keep working in their regular clothes walking in and out of the space being cleaned. He investigated and found that the combination of chemicals being used was dangerous. Standing up for health concerns—for himself and his coworkers—worked. After so many years, he claimed, “Now I know everything about OSHA regulations.”

Cigarette smoke is particularly harmful during pregnancy. A number of female employees in jobs where they are exposed to smoke shared that they had dropped out when they became pregnant. Permitting smoking at the workplace thus induces labor force intermittency, costly to women in the long run when they give up seniority, wages, pension accruals, and experience that leads to career mobility.

A good job also reinforces a positive sense of identity. The gender, race, and ethnic hierarchies that are common in the service sector are particularly apparent in these casino jobs. Workers construct their work identities actively, not passively, in the face of these status hierarchies, looking for meaning in doing their jobs well or from other family and community activities. While cocktail servers have jobs that ask them to perform gender in ways that can be demeaning, the women in these jobs look for ways to maintain their dignity. And immigrant women who are often socially invisible on the job find ways to make themselves heard.

In all of these jobs, workers tried to take pride in providing good service. While manufacturing workers traditionally derived their sense of identity from creating useful products (according to historians),[22] in service work the product is experience. Building relationships with customers is critical because service work is interactive. Good relationships with coworkers and managers also facilitate good service. When these relationships get frayed in the name of efficiency, the employees feel the brunt of it but the quality of service—the product that casinos are offering—suffers as well.


Evelyn Nakano Glenn, “From Servitude to Service Work: Historical Continuities in the Racial Division of Paid Reproductive Labor,” Signs 18, no. 1 (1992): 1-43. See also Deborah M. Figart, Ellen Mutari, and Marilyn Power, Living Wages, Equal Wages: Gender and Labor Market Policies in the United States (New York: Routledge, 2002), chap. 2.


Glenn, “From Servitude to Service Work,” 20.


Saru Jayaraman, Behind the Kitchen Door (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2013), 105 and 116-17.


Philip Moss and Chris Tilly, Stories Employers Tell: Race, Skill, and Hiring in America (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2001).


Gregory J. Kamer and Edwin A. Keller Jr., “Give Me $5 Chips, a Jack and Coke—Hold the Cleavage: A Look at Employee Appearance Issues in the Gaming Industry,” Gaming Law Review 7, no. 5 (2003): 335-46.


Amel Adib and Yvonne Guerrier, “The Interlocking of Gender with Nationality, Race, Ethnicity and Class: The Narratives of Women in Hotel Work,” in Global Perspectives on Gender and Work, ed. Jacqueline Goodman (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2010), 251.


Jennifer Bogdan, “Borgata Can Make ‘Babes’ Watch Weight,” Press of Atlantic City, July 25, 2013. A study of Reno casino cocktail servers found a racial preference for white servers; an Eastern European immigrant with limited language skills could easily be hired while Latinas were not. See Lorraine Bayard de Volo, “Service and Surveillance: Infrapolitics at Work among Casino Cocktail Waitresses,” Social Politics 10, no. 3 (2003): 354.


See, for example, Doris Weichselbaumer, “Discrimination in Gay and Lesbian Lives,” in Handbook of Research on Gender and Economic Life, ed. Deborah M. Figart and Tonia L. Warnecke (Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar, 2013), 236-54.


M. V. Lee Badgett and Mary C. King, “Lesbian and Gay Occupational Strategies,” in Homo Economics, ed. Amy Gluckman and Betsy Reed (New York: Routledge, 1997), 73-86.


Koji Ueno, Teresa Roach, and Abráham E. Peña-Talamantes, “Sexual Orientation and Gender Typicality of the Occupation in Young Adulthood,” Social Forces 91, no. 1 (2013): 81-108.


Judith Lorber, “‘Night to His Day:’ The Social Construction of Gender,” in Global Perspectives on Gender and Work, ed. Jacqueline Goodman (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2010), 15-32.


Yvonne Stedham and Merwin C. Mitchell, “Sexual Harassment in Casinos: Effects on Employee Attitudes and Behaviors,” Journal of Gambling Studies 14, no. 4 (1998): 381-400.


Stedham and Mitchell, “Sexual Harassment in Casinos,” 387. Similarly, the workers in a participant observation study conducted at a national chain restaurant with the pseudonym “Bazooms” regarded sexual harassment and sexual joking as endemic to the job. They wished they knew how to manage it better. See Meika Loe, “Working at Bazooms: The Intersection of Power, Gender, and Sexuality,” in Mapping the Social Landscape: Readings in Sociology, ed. Susan J. Ferguson (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2010), 330-45.


A participant observation study in three Reno casinos also found touching was rare. See Bayard de Volo, “Service and Surveillance,” 357-59.


Kamer and Keller, “Give Me $5 Chips, a Jack and Coke—Hold the Cleavage.”


Jennifer Bogdan, “A.C. Does Sexy,” Press of Atlantic City, February 17, 2013.


Bogdan, “Borgata Can Make ‘Babes’ Watch Weight.”


Lynda Cohen, “New Sexual Harassment Suits Go Beyond the Pool, Allege Harrah’s Knew and Covered Up,” Press of Atlantic City, February 9, 2010; Jennifer Bogdan, “Harrah’s Waitress Settles Sex-Harassment Suit,” Press of Atlantic City, May 22, 2012.


Ann C. McGinley, “Babes and Beefcake: Exclusive Hiring Arrangements and Sexy Dress Codes,” Duke Journal of Gender Law and Policy 14, no. 1 (2007): 273-74.


Derek Harper, “Automated Casino Booze Irks Servers,” Press of Atlantic City, September 13, 2013.


Barbara Ehrenreich and Arlie Russell Hochschild, Global Woman: Nannies, Maids, and Sex Workers in the New Economy (New York: Holt, 2004).


Wayne A. Lewchuk, “Men and Monotony: Fraternalism as a Managerial Strategy at the Ford Motor Company,” Journal of Economic History 53, no. 4 (1993): 824-56.

Aparna’s Story

Aparna is an educated immigrant in what we often consider a low-level job. Many people never pay much attention to the housekeeper who cleans their hotel rooms or brings them an extra towel or a roll of toilet paper. She is often invisible, except to some regular customers who know her by name and request a room on her hall. An upbeat woman who always says “You have to love your job to do your job,” Aparna found to her surprise that housekeeping made sense as a career, especially the stable hours and job security that comes with being a union member. In fact, she has found an outlet for her hidden talents as a union representative for her coworkers: helper, listener, fact-finder, and problem-solver. As long as you don’t call her a maid: “I don’t like that word,” she tells us.

Aparna is from India, the oldest child from a large family—“very poor and very happy,” in her words. As part of her early education, she developed skills in sewing and jewelry making. This experience with detailed work may be one reason she wears glasses today on her round face and her hands, seen when she expresses herself with gestures, look both rugged and delicate at the same time. She always planned to work. “I grew up as an independent woman,” she insists with pride. She went to college in India to try to advance herself. Meanwhile, her future husband, Prajit, returned to India from the United States to find a wife; a relative recommended him to her father. “And I got a phone call that today you’re gonna go see the guy, and I said, ‘Dad, are you joking? I’m here, I have my exam in, like, one and half months and I’m here home studying, and you think I have to go and see the boy?’” But she was devoted to her father, so she went to Mumbai by train to meet Prajit. They decided to marry only an hour after meeting. Aparna remembers with a laugh: “I said yes because he was so good-looking guy!” But she first insisted that she be allowed to remain home to earn her college degree. Once she finished college, she took English classes to prepare for her new life. Aparna then joined her husband in the United States. The newlywed couple lived with his parents, in a household totaling thirteen people.

Aparna started out by helping with Prajit’s family’s business, a small store. She continued her English classes and her self-assigned homework: She would read one English book, then one book in her own language, one English, one other, and so on, alternating between the two. When helping customers in the store, Prajit encouraged her to complete whole sentences, not just answer “yes” or “no.” She also studied the New Jersey driver’s manual in English so she could pass the written test and get her license. Aparna felt that if she could drive, she would again be independent, and then it would be the right time to plan for children. When the business was sold a few years later, Prajit started a new job as a slot attendant in an Atlantic City casino. By this time, they had themselves and two children to support.

On a whim while vacationing, the entrepreneurial couple bought a sandwich shop and a home in Florida. She stayed for ten years, he for six. They tried living apart, Aparna with the children and a second business in Florida and Prajit back in the Atlantic City casinos. After four summers of growing kids coming to the Jersey shore to see their father, they sat down and did some family budget calculations; they decided it was better to reunite under one roof, in Atlantic City. So Aparna and the children moved back. Soon after, Aparna started her first job at Tropicana as a casino hotel housekeeper. “First job.” That’s what she thought: it would just be her first job. She still is a housekeeper—a guest room attendant—twelve years later.

She was trained for the job by a coworker. It took five days, learning different floors and different towers of the hotel. Aparna found many of her coworkers were also newer immigrants from India and Bangladesh as well as Latinas from Puerto Rico and Central and South America. There was camaraderie among the staff. And she became exceptionally good at her job. Aparna would approach each day with her own mantra, “I’m going to be something today, I’m going to learn more, I’m going to be helpful to someone.”

At Tropicana, guest room attendants are usually assigned to the same area each day, and they get to know the regular customers. As she goes from room to room, she calls a phone number to indicate where she is in her routine. Supervisors also make the rounds once before lunch and again after lunch to check on how things are going. People think the job is easier than it is, according to Aparna. “Housekeeping [is] so much hard work.” You work with a lot of chemicals to do the cleaning and “people get allergic to it,” she adds. Changing twenty-eight beds a day (fourteen rooms, two beds per room) causes much wear and tear on the back, the knees, and the wrists. The bathroom is slippery. One coworker fell while rehanging a shower curtain. A back injury kept her out for six months.

One of the reasons Aparna never followed through on an original ambition to become a dealer is that she works regular 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. hours. The regular schedule is a real plus because of child care. But you can expect to work either Saturday, Sunday, or both days. She tells us that she earns about $12 per hour plus tips, but the amount of the tips varies widely among individual customers. She hasn’t noticed any patterns about who tips well and who doesn’t. Her care about her guests shows. She has amassed regular customers over the years and they can be generous. At reservation or check-in time, they request Aparna’s floor or section. One of her regulars, who used to visit weekly with her husband, continued to come and stay in the same room after he passed away. She called Aparna to wish her a happy birthday one year. And when the woman stopped coming, Aparna tracked her down in a nursing home and called her periodically because the former guest didn’t have any family left of her own.

She survived a difficult period of mass layoffs with ownership changes at Trop from 2006-2008. The local press reported on the turbulence in great, gory detail, some facts proven, others alleged: ignored or deferred maintenance, dirty and dusty hotel rooms and public areas, overflowing toilets, cockroaches, bedbugs, unsanitary eating facilities, piles of garbage, and the like. City health inspection reports showed disproportionate areas rated “unsatisfactory” or “conditionally satisfactory,” relative to the Trop’s casino floor space. Casino patrons complained. Employee labor unions, led by Local 54, criticized and challenged management. Tropicana was called “a dump.” The problem was cutbacks in staffing to save money. From 2006-2007, the new owner, Columbia Sussex Corporation, cut 900 jobs (about 20-25 percent of its workforce), including security officers—though those latter cuts would have been worse had the Casino Control Commission not stepped in due to safety concerns. Tropicana’s casino license was under review during this turmoil. In a drawn-out two-year saga, the Casino Control Commission fined the casino $750,000, denied a license to Columbia Sussex, and placed the Trop under a trustee. Columbia Sussex kept fighting and appealing in state courts. Eventually, the way was cleared for a bankruptcy auction. In 2009, the Tropicana was sold to a group of creditors led by billionaire investor Carl Icahn. Aparna recalls working overtime during this period, taking on extra work because nonunion employees in other departments were losing their jobs. Morale was low across the board.

Things have improved since that time, but she still wishes for more respect and appreciation from management. Attendants are disciplined (“written up”) for various guest complaints. Guests tend to complain about purported stealing. This is quite common, actually. It’s easy to blame the housekeeper. As a guest room attendant, it’s difficult to defend yourself from these charges. Aparna provides an example about a guest losing her earrings. Suppose her earrings are bothering her. They might be diamonds, or gold. The guest puts them on the bed and forgets about them. The earrings get caught in creases when someone sits on the bed. Then later, the attendant comes in to change the sheets, not noticing the earrings. When the hotel guest looks on the bed after the sheets have been changed and doesn’t see them, the employee is charged, and gets a write-up.

That’s just for a pair of accidently misplaced earrings. Sometimes an accusation comes from gamblers—including drunken gamblers—who lost their money, or mislaid or sold their jewelry, or perhaps they just want a free room. Security personnel have to be called when a hotel guest claims that $1,000 or $10,000 was taken from a bag in their room. She groans, “They always think the casino guest is 100 percent right. That’s not true. A guest is never 100 percent right,” Aparna asserts, adding, “What about employees? Employees don’t have a heart? They’re never right?” That’s why employees are continuously written up. And fired.

One time Aparna was in the security office for almost three hours! She was charged with stealing a purse. Or leaving a guest room door ajar so that someone else could slip in and steal the purse. To this day, you can hear the stress in her voice as she tells the story, her voice rising an octave and the words rushing out as she explains how the mystery unfolded. Aparna entered a woman guest’s room to clean it. The guest was in the bathroom talking on the phone. Aparna said, “I’m sorry, I’ll come later.” The guest insisted, “No, no, no, I’m just going to be five minutes.” The guest left while Aparna was cleaning, taking her purse and fidgeting with it as she left. Aparna quickly finished cleaning the room and went on to a new room on another hall.

Meanwhile, two other housekeepers started cleaning the room next door on the same hall, a “dirty vacant” (meaning the guests had checked out). The original guest came back and absent-mindedly put her purse down in the room with the open door that was being cleaned; then she went back down to the casino floor. When the guest eventually went back to her own room and didn’t see her purse, she freaked out and called security. As Aparna was grilled by security, she stood her ground: “I don’t have any purse! I don’t know nothing. The last thing I know is—how I’m going to steal the purse because I was cleaning a different room? … I say ‘You think I’m going to lose this kind of job? For, like, a few dollars? Why?’” They went over and over the timing from the logs of her calls from each room and reviewed elevator security cameras to watch the guest come and go. After sweating like a suspect under interrogation, she went home not knowing if she would get fired.

During the night, a new guest checked into the room where the purse had accidently been left. The new guest saw a purse on the dresser, assumed the room was occupied, and called the front desk to ask for a different room. Much confusion ensued as the front desk insisted the room was unoccupied. Security eventually sorted out the mystery, and the purse was returned to its owner. But no one thought to call Aparna and tell her she’d been cleared, not even when she arrived at work the next day. She only learned that the mystery had been solved by overhearing other workers discussing the incident. “And I went and talked to my manager. I said ‘At least I was expecting only one phone call from you. One phone call from you.’”

Over the years, Aparna became increasingly concerned for employees getting written up for this, written up for that, then fired from their job. She would fight to get their jobs back. Her fight for worker rights and against unfairness, disparate treatment—sometimes discrimination, she says—is what drew her to union leadership. She was actively sought out by a Local 54 vice president. He took to visiting the housekeeping department during lunch break. He spoke with Aparna, then he asked her if she would become a shop steward for her department. She thought about it but wasn’t sure. Turned out that he became a regular visitor for about three months, repeating “I’m still here, waiting for your answer.” She eventually said yes. She likes helping her coworkers, especially preventing many of them from getting fired for unsubstantiated accusations. And she monitors the points (accumulated for absences, lateness, and other policy infractions) in their files, which are supposed to expire after a year. Unfortunately, she could not prevent the firing of a longtime friend and coworker after her final write-up. Every employee isn’t perfect, she says, but “when any employee comes to you with any problem, you’re going to believe it first.” Then she does her research, because her job as a union rep is to “find out what is true.”

This hard-working woman strives to improve the experiences of the roughly 300 customers and coworkers whose lives she touches every day. The quality of her interactions with people matters the most for her. That includes her family. While making her way in the United States, she has helped out her younger siblings, her mother, and her father back in India. After all, it was her father that made the match with Prajit, something that she agrees was meant to be. But her husband was laid off from his longtime casino job as his employer saw business decline. He has been turned down for employment at several casinos in town. “They want younger” people, Aparna says, and Prajit is nearly sixty years old. Until he can find work, he stays with his adult daughter’s family quite a bit and helps care for his grandchildren. Her college-educated son is working at a casino restaurant in Atlantic City, still seeking that first professional job in the business world. Aparna’s income is even more essential for the family at home and in India. After almost two decades on the job, she says she will continue in this job until her body gives out.