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Wednesday, 21 September 2011 13:20

Oasis of jobs: Cherokee casino emerges as a lifeline in sour economy

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Help wanted signs aren’t too common these days. But there’s an anomaly here in the far end of the state, where Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Resort is in the throes of a $633 million expansion, one that will bring 800 new jobs to an otherwise desolate labor market.

Hiring that many new workers — plus keeping up with turnover — is no small feat. The casino has averaged 30 new employees a week during the height of its expansion. It takes a staff of seven, day in and day out, to sift through all those applications and set up interviews. Hiring is such an all-consuming task that official signs point the way to “applicant parking” and even an “applicant entrance” on the casino property.

Harrah’s has hired 500 new employees over the past two years to run the new hotel tower, expanded gaming floor and half a dozen new restaurants. It has another 300 to go by this time next year when the expansion is built out.

“We are one of the few businesses that is adding jobs,” said Darold Londo, the general manager of Harrah’s Cherokee. “Name another company in North Carolina that will have 300 more employees at this time next year than they do today. You can’t. There isn’t one.”

The recession has made hiring easier for Harrah’s.

“When the economy was really going well, we had a bit more of a challenge finding people,” said Jo Blaylock, vice president of human resources at Harrah’s Cherokee. “The economy has helped us in that sense because a lot of people are without work.”

Employees are staying longer as well. Turnover averaged about 30 percent before the recession compared to 20 percent now.

“People are tending to hang on to their jobs. There aren’t a lot of other opportunities out there,” Blaylock said.

While out-of-work Realtors or laid-off teachers have given Harrah’s hiring a boost, Blaylock predicts some will return to their primary field when the economy recovers.

But for now, Harrah’s is an oasis of jobs in an employment desert.

Kim Gurdock of Franklin was ecstatic to land a job with Harrah’s recently after months of looking for work. She moved to the mountains from south Florida earlier this year, giving up more than two decades as a teacher to forge a new life in a better place. But the only job she could find was working at McDonald’s.

“I had applied for 42 jobs in Franklin,” Gurdock said, a list that included the school system, banks, grocery stores and retail. Gurdock felt like her lack of local roots was a strike against her.

She starts this week as a food runner in the VIP lounge at the casino. Her boyfriend also got a job at Harrah’s as a cook, and she hopes they can work the same shifts to carpool for the 45-minute commute.

Her story isn’t that unusual.

“It is amazing the number of job applications any more that we get for jobs. It used to be 15 applications, and now it is 75 or 80,” said Dale West, the Employment Security Commission manager for Jackson, Macon and Swain counties. “If there are openings, people will apply if they think they are at all qualified.”

Josh Williams, an accounting student at Western Carolina University trying to pay his way through school, was commuting from Sylva to Asheville to work at J.C. Penney, one of the only jobs he could find. But his hours kept getting cut. So he applied at Harrah’s on the advice of a friend at school. He starts this week in food service at the new Paula Deen’s Kitchen restaurant on the property.

He considers himself lucky “considering jobs are scare right now,” he said.

 

A blow to unemployment

Harrah’s payroll accounts for 8 percent of all wages and salaries in Jackson and Swain counties. It’s one of Western North Carolina’s largest employers, and not just for people in Cherokee.

Tribal members make up less than 20 percent of Harrah’s workforce — only 350 of the nearly 2,100 employees are Cherokee.

The number seems low at first blush, considering Cherokee is home to about 7,000 tribal members. Some are obviously too young or too old to work. Others are stay-at-home moms, disabled or have otherwise dropped out of the workforce.

A large number of tribal members work for tribal government and agencies, nearly 1,000. Then there’s the myriad gift shops, hotels and restaurants plying the tourist trade in Cherokee — and suddenly the pool to draw from locally isn’t all that large.

The upshot to the region is that the casino has to look outside Cherokee for a huge number of its employees.

Unemployment in Swain County was 18 percent in 1995 before the casino opened. It dropped to a low of just 5 percent in 2006.

“It has made all the difference in the world as far as unemployment,” said Brad Walker, the mayor of nearby Bryson City. “If you want a job, you can get one. It has improved the lives of a lot of the people in Bryson City and Swain County. It is fantastic.”

While the recession has driven unemployment in Swain back up to about 13 percent, it could be far worse without the casino.

Most notably, perhaps, is the improvement in the labor market in winter months when tourist jobs historically dried up. Before the casino, the unemployment rate in Swain regularly topped 30 percent in the winter. By 2006, however, unemployment even during the dead of winter was as low as 8 or 9 percent.

“Before the casino a lot of tourist places closed for the winter and now they stay open,” said Vicki Horn, who works at the Employment Security Commission in nearby Bryson City.

Interestingly, the success of the casino has made the total job market more robust, eating into the available workforce for the casino itself.

“The casino has allowed tribal members to work other places,” said Vicki Horn with the Employment Security Commission in Swain County.

Casino revenue flows to tribal coffers, creating jobs for members of the tribe. The same goes for private businesses now thriving thanks to casino spin off.

“This hotel wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the casino,” said Walker, the general manger of the Fairfield Inn in Cherokee.

 

A challenge to hiring

The huge influx of casino employees has stressed the affordable housing market. Affordable housing for blue-collar workers is a challenge in most communities. But it was particularly true in the mountains, where real estate prices have been driven sky high by the burgeoning retiree and vacation home market, leaving low-paid hourly workers in the service industry struggling to find housing they could afford.

A surprising number of new hires at the casino have moved here specifically for the work, but have trouble finding somewhere to rent.

“I had a guy come in yesterday who told me he had accepted a position at the casino and was looking for a rental,” said Megan Cookston, a Realtor at Yellow Rose Realty in Bryson City. “That is a problem in this area. They ask ‘Where do we look?’ and really the only place to guide them to is the newspaper, but there is not that much there.”

Yellow Rose manages short-term vacation rentals, and those have been doing a brisk business thanks to the massive $633 million expansion at the casino. Construction companies have been renting houses to put up their laborers in town for the job.

“Electricians, plumbers, people hanging sheetrock — it is just everything,” Cookston said.

To meet its hiring goals, Harrah’s solicited the help of Haywood Community College to hold job fairs on the casino’s behalf. Once a month, Harrah’s hiring team travels to Waynesville to tap a fresh pool of applicants.

“We can see 30 in a day instead of 30 driving over here,” Blaylock said.

Harrah’s has a strict drug testing policy that likely hurts its employment pool. All new hires are tested for illegal drugs using a hair sample, which detects substances going back 90 days, far more stringent than the standard urine test. Every month, the casino does random drug testing on 1 percent of the work force, selected from a computer-generated list.

“The drug test is something that we do not waver on,” Blaylock said. “I think some people don’t apply because they know we do drug testing.”

 

All about the perks

Salaries at Harrah’s vary widely based on the job. Stewards make $8 an hour, while cashiers make $9. But food service supervisors make $45,000 a year, and the grounds supervisors and top chefs make up to $55,000.

But the benefits, particularly the health insurance, make up for what the salaries may lack.

Nationwide, businesses are cutting benefits as they grapple with rising health care costs. Employees are ponying up a greater share of their insurance costs and forking over higher deductibles and co-pays.

At the casino, workers don’t pay a dime toward their health insurance.

“They are better benefits than you will find anywhere else,” Londo said. “You can thank the tribe for that. Cherokee has established that as the norm for anyone who works for the tribe.”

The tribe covers the full cost of medical, dental and vision insurance for all tribal employees, and extends those benefits to the casino as a tribal entity. Legally, the casino can’t have two tiers of benefits for employees — it can’t offer better coverage to enrolled members than non-tribal members — so everyone, whether Cherokee or not, enjoys the generous health insurance plan of the tribe, Blaylock said.

Harrah’s takes the health of employees seriously. As a self-insured entity, every doctor’s visit comes out of the casino’s bottom line.

To cut those costs, the casino is hiring an in-house physician’s assistant and will open two onsite exam rooms in January. Being able to see a doctor at work will also cut down on employees clocking out for doctor’s appointments.

Employees also get a physical every quarter. If they are overweight or if their cholesterol is too high, the casino gives them a cash incentive to meet health goals. Al Lossiah, a employee trainer, bragged about getting $75 for losing 25 pounds this year.

“Then I gained it back and they’ll pay me to lose it again,” he joked.

To encourage fitness, Harrah’s has an onsite workout room with treadmills, bikes and rowing machines open to any employee who wants to use it.

Some employees probably don’t need it though. Gaming hosts walk an average of eight miles every shift, while the laundry team hefts 12,000 pounds of linens in and out of machines each day.

Alternatively, a pair of black leather vibrating massage chairs are up for grabs on breaks or after your shift.

While health insurance tops the list of coveted benefits, it’s one of many offered by a company that prides itself on taking care of its employees. Workers get a 3 percent match to a 401K, plus a pension worth another 3 percent of their salary. Vacation time maxes out at a liberal six weeks after nine years on the job.

There’s non-tangible perks, too. Harrah’s partners with Southwestern Community College to offer GED classes onsite at the casino and covers the enrollment fee for anyone who wants to pursue it.

There’s also assistance of the monetary variety. Harrah’s makes grants or loans to employees that have fallen on hard times through its “employee care fund.”

If an employee is dealing with a difficult teenager at home, substance abuse in their family or the stress of caring for elderly parents, Harrah’s pays for counseling.

“It is easy to say leave those concerns at the door and come in and service the guests, but in reality it is not that easy to do that,” Blaylock said. “We take a holistic look at our employees. If they feel good about themselves, they will exude that when they are talking to the guests.”

In that sense, Harrah’s loyalty to its employees isn’t entirely benevolent. It’s a little more mercenary than that: happy employees equal happy players equal more money at the end of the day.

 

Total Harrah’s Cherokee employees: 2,084
Jackson    796*
Swain    690*
Haywood    308
Macon    121
Graham    50
Buncombe    27

*Figures for Jackson and Swain include employees living on the Cherokee Reservation, which lies partly in both counties.
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