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Atlantic City casino workers vote to strike, citing wages and inflation

Workers at Caesars, Tropicana, Harrah’s, Borgata and Hard Rock say they are prepared walk out if a contract agreement is not reached by July 1

Members of Unite Here Local 54 celebrate after voting June 15 in Atlantic City to authorize a strike against casinos next month if a new contract is not reached. (Wayne Parry/AP)

Unionized workers from five Atlantic City casinos voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike, teeing up a labor fight that could paralyze a storied East Coast tourist hub with the summer travel season well underway.

Unite Here Local 54 announced Wednesday evening that 96 percent of the workers from five of the city’s classic casinos ― Caesars, Tropicana, Harrah’s, Borgata and Hard Rock ― who cast votes endorsed a strike. The union plans to return to the negotiating table, but the strike authorization signifies they are prepared to walk out if no agreement emerges by the July 1 deadline. A strike would affect about 10,000 workers, according to a union representative, making up a sizable chunk of the city’s hospitality workforce.

Press representatives from Borgata, Hard Rock and the Caesars Entertainment parent company that also owns Tropicana and Harrah’s did not respond to emailed requests for comment. A spokesman for the casino association of New Jersey referred questions to the individual casinos, noting that the strike is a property-by-property issue.

The strike authorization is the latest to emerge from a reinvigorated labor movement. Unions have been pressing for better contract terms over the past 18 months in the face of strong corporate profits and labor shortages. At the same time, the skyrocketing prices of essentials such as food, gasoline and rent have put additional pressure on employers to help workers meet the cost of living.

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The labor challenges come against a complicated economic backdrop. The hospitality industry came roaring back to life last year after a pandemic-inflicted slump in 2020 but faces newfound uncertainty as many economists warn of a recession.

The U.S. gambling industry set a record for revenue in 2021. In the early months of 2022 nearly all commercial gambling states have been tracking well ahead of the early months of the previous year, according to the American Gaming Association. New Jersey’s gambling industry has generated an estimated $1.6 billion in the first four months of 2022, representing a 19 percent increase over the previous year, according to the AGA.

Casino workers contacted by The Washington Post said they are hoping their managers will return to the bargaining table so they don’t have to walk out. They have been pressing for better pay at a time when the cost of living has risen sharply. They are also seeking new contract protections to prevent the casinos from giving their work to outside firms.

“I don’t think that we want to see a strike,” said Edward Jernigan, a doorman at Caesars. “With all the economic disarray that’s going on, with rising gas prices and food going up, we just want our fair shake.”

Jernigan has worked at Caesars for 31 years. But the rent on his two-bedroom apartment in nearby Pleasantville has increased nearly 17 percent, from $1,500 to $1,750 a month, and he says his wages haven’t kept up.

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The casinos have provided raises in the past, Jernigan says, but they haven’t applied to all job categories. Meanwhile, rising prices are diminishing gains made in previous years.

“The cost of everything is going up,” says Ruth Ann Joyce, a banquet bartender at Harrah’s. Her rent on a two-bedroom apartment in Galloway has increased from $2,000 to $2,135 a month. She says the rent increase is squeezing her budget at a time when other essentials, notably food and gasoline, are also more expensive.

“Your money can only be stretched so far, and once you have reached the end of it, you still have bills to pay. There is no more stretching left on that rubber band,” she said.

Meanwhile, Iris Sanchez, a housekeeper at Caesars, says her job has gotten more difficult because occupied rooms are not necessarily cleaned daily, which means the work piles up until guests check out. “We get bags and bags of trash in the rooms by the time they leave,” she said.

Because the company is short-staffed, the housekeepers are working six days a week, and often putting in overtime, Sanchez said. But she says her $16.25 an hour is not keeping up with her expenses: Her rent recently jumped by $200, to $1,400 per month.

Many companies have had a hard time filling open positions over the past year. Workers have been leaving their jobs at a near-record pace, and employers have had to get creative to attract the best candidates.

Sanchez says many of the new hires that Caesars brought in to fill out the housekeeping ranks have left after short stints, frustrated by what many view as hard work for little pay.

In Atlantic City’s tourist economy, “everybody knows how much the casinos are making, so they increase everything else,” Sanchez said. “Everything is going up except our raises.”