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Rank-and-file casino workers told to turn on the charm

In a basement classroom at Harrah’s casino, a fresh group of new hires stretched out before Al Lossiah, the latest in an endless stream of weekly newbies.

They were here to learn the art of moneymaking, with Lossiah as their guide, motivator, acting coach.

“You don’t have to like them, but you got to be nice to them,” Lossiah said. “You guys have been hired as entertainers now, you learn to act. When they walk in the door, this is what I see when I look at their face.”

He picked up a marker, turned to a dry erase board and drew a giant smiley face. But in place of eyes, he put two dollar signs.

“When you do your job, we all get paid,” Lossiah said. “Keep these people happy, keep them spending that money here.”

With 3.5 million guests tromping through the casino every year, smiling at each one of them can be taxing. But employees can’t afford to let down their guard. You never know which one is the high roller, Lossiah said.

Players spend hundreds of millions at Harrah’s every year. But it’s a relatively small number of players accounting for most of the play — roughly 10 and 20 percent of players account for 80 to 90 percent of the gaming revenue.

Lossiah and those who have worked there long enough know who the high rollers are. There’s one lady who spends about a million a month, every month, he said.

“She can go anywhere in the world she wants to go, the Riviera, anywhere. But she chooses to come to Cherokee. Why? Because we treat her like a queen,” Lossiah said.

“If I was out in the public and someone said ‘I got some dust on my shoes’ I’d say, ‘Here’s a quarter go call somebody who really cares,’” Lossiah said. “Here, I can treat anybody like a king and a queen. Can I get you a drink, can I get you a cup of coffee, and you smile at them.”

He pointed to his smiley face with the $$ eyes again.

“They pay good money for us to be nice to them,” Lossiah said.

For tribal members who work at the casino, there’s a double incentive. Tribal members get a share of casino profits, amounting to more than $7,000 for each of the 14,000 members of the Eastern Band last year.

“You do your job well, guests are happy, they stay longer and play more, the casino makes more money, and per cap checks are higher,” Lossiah said.

 

A different kind of interview

Job seekers eager to jump on the Harrah’s Casino gravy train should be forewarned: brush up on your singing and learn a few jokes.

To measure stage presence, applicants are put on the spot, not only in front of the hiring team but as one of 10 job seekers in a panel-style interview.

“We might say imitate your favorite celebrity. We want to see if they are inhibited and can’t stand up and talk, versus who can stand up and really sell themselves,” said Jo Blaylock, vice president of human resources at Harrah’s Cherokee.

It doesn’t matter if you are applying as a hotel maid or kitchen dishwasher, Harrah’s wants all employees to think of themselves as being in the entertainment business.

“Do you have the energy, do you have the personality, can you talk in front of people,” Blaylock said. “We are really looking for people who can converse and have good relationships with guests — people that can have a good time and have a good personality.”

Not every job demands such a disposition. There are plenty back-of-house jobs, from the laundry to the landscaping team. In that sense, placing new hires in the right job is just as important as who gets hired.

Harrah’s is loyal to its employees and will work to find a good fit

“There’s about 250 different things to do here,” said Darold Londo, the casino’s general manager.

There’s fulltime light bulb changers, people who repair torn upholstery — there’s even a full-time staffer dedicated to making sure the culinary desires and whims of stars performing at Harrah’s are met during their stay. Grocery bags of soda and chips were piled up in a posh backstage lounge a couple of weeks ago awaiting the weekend arrival of country star Travis Tritt.

 

‘Opportunities abound’

Rising through the ranks is common at Harrah’s. The prospect of promotion is part of the job allure.

“What I convey is if you like the organization and our DNA that is unique to Harrah’s, there are opportunities abound within our organization,” Londo said. “There are people doing things that are beyond their wildest aspiration when they started at this organization.”

Londo tries to plant the seed of a Harrah’s career track when speaking to new hires.

“I want you to look back in five years and see this as the defining moment in your professional career,” Londo told a recent batch.

To help develop managers from within, Harrah’s Cherokee has a team of four fulltime, in-house trainers.

When the Eastern Band launched its casino enterprise in 1997, the tribe was angling for more than just money. It hoped the business would provide jobs for tribal members, Londo said. Many in top jobs today are Cherokee who rose to their positions.

Employing columns of tribal members remains a major goal, but not everyone is cut out for customer service jobs, particularly in the casino sector where wooing players with smiles and charm seems to fall on everyone’s shoulders, even the $8.50  an hour food runners and carpet cleaners.

“That is a real live business challenge,” Londo said.

Since taking the helm at Harrah’s six years ago, Londo has made a point of dropping in on every new hire training, a first for general managers at the Cherokee casino. He spends an hour chatting up the week’s new hires, a non-scripted and free-wheeling spiel that feels more like friendly banter over happy hour than a corporate lesson from the top boss.

Londo’s goal is buy-in.

“I want you to look for ways to make this a better place to work and play tomorrow than it is today,” Londo told new hires.

As a kid, Londo was frustrated by Coke machines only accepting coins. So he wrote a letter to “Dear Mr. Coca-Cola” and suggested vending machines that took bills.

Londo encouraged employees to ignore the chain of command. While his old West Point military academy instructors might cringe to hear him say it, Londo told employees they don’t need to run to their supervisor with every question or problem, but instead take it to the person whose job it is.

Oddly, Londo stops short of the mantra of that the customer is always right.

“We will part ways with customers if they do or say something inappropriate because we value our employees,” Londo said. “We want to convey that we value our human resources and our most valuable asset.”

Keeping morale high for 2,000 employees and keeping everyone pulling in the same direction takes constant maintenance beyond that first week of training.

Londo recalled the “have you hugged a security officer today” campaign. It was fun at first, until security officers starting getting dozens of hugs every day from their coworkers.

“It kind of backfired,” Londo said.

Before every shift, supervisors lead their team in a “buzz session.”

“They play a game to get their energy going and get the laughter coming out, to get them pumped up for the day,” Blaylock said.

“A job doesn’t necessarily have to be a job. A job should be something you enjoy and have fun at,” Blaylock said.

“If we are having fun our guests are more likely to have fun. If guests have an enjoyable time they will come back.”

That’s where Lossiah comes back again and again to his smiley face on the dry-erase board, the one with dollar signs for eyes. His red laser pointer frequently finds its way to those $$ eyes during his new hire training.

Lossiah makes no apologies for it.

“That’s Harrah’s financial strategy,” Londo told a recent group of new hires. “We treat you well, you are satisfied you take that to the guests, treat them well, we have job security and financial success,” Lossiah said.

Laid off by state cuts, workers likely to join the underemployed

Dianne Lee is one of the lucky ones — an experienced and talented stained-glass artist, she has a ready-made job to replace at least some of the income she earns at the N.C. Center for the Advancement of Teaching in Cullowhee.

This month, NCCAT Director Elaine Franklin was forced to notify 50 percent of the teaching center’s workforce they were losing their jobs because of state budget cuts. That translates to about 30 fulltime jobs in Jackson County, plus another five to 10 at the center’s campus in Ocracoke. The annual salaries of the laid-off workers ranged from the lower end of $20,000 up to $80,000, Franklin said.

Lee was one of the victims. She has worked at NCCAT for 18 of the institution’s 25 years, helping with programs and running NCCAT’s Alumni Weekends. NCCAT provides training and development for teachers around the state, keeping them inspired and, in turn, more likely to stay in the profession.

“I’m going to make lemon out of lemonade,” said Lee, who in a lengthy phone interview sounded more worried about her colleagues’ employment prospects than her own. “I am losing sleep over them — some are scared to death.”

And, in fact, it’s not going to be easy in this harsh economic climate for the NCCAT workers to replace those state salaries and benefits. They are more likely, experts say, to join the ranks of the growing underemployed in North Carolina.

 

How WNC’s recession unfolded

“This thing has come in waves,” said Victor Moore of OnTrack Financial Education and Counseling, a nonprofit based in Asheville that offers consumer credit advice for North Carolina’s 18 westernmost counties.

Moore said the first wave of help seekers to come to OnTrack when the recession hit were people who basically had engaged in bad loans and were defaulting at the first hint of economic trouble. Then, the construction and building industry faltered, and threw many in the region out of work. The land speculators were next — plans to “flip” properties and make quick profits were no longer viable options, and some people with second homes were also soon in trouble.

Now, to an extent, come the underemployed, Moore said. These might be workers who find a lower paying job, but can’t bank on 40 hours a week and aren’t working up to their earning potential.

Lee, for instance, won’t necessarily start showing up in the official monthly unemployment rate, because she will be operating her business, the Stained Glass Bungalow in Waynesville.

The unemployment rate decreased in just under half of North Carolina’s 100 counties in May, which state officials attributed to a rise in seasonal employment. The state rate was 9.7 percent for that month. Jackson stood at 8.8 percent, Haywood 9 percent, Macon 9.9 percent and Swain 11.1 percent unemployment.

But those numbers fail to take into account the underemployed, a demographic Lee and her laid-off colleagues who are lucky enough to find work are likely to fit — people in WNC who lose one level of job and pay, and are forced to accept a lower level job for less pay and, often, fewer hours.

“Because they are not just going to go out and find comparable employment right now,” said Amy Grimes, director of The Community Table, a soup kitchen in Sylva. “Or, the jobs they can get pay them less than collecting unemployment, which was based on the job lost.”

A recent survey at The Community Table showed an increase in the number of people seeking help who are college educated, Grimes said.

Mark Clasby, executive director of the Haywood County Economic Development Commission, said the unemployment numbers don’t truly reveal the extent of the problem.

“They don’t include the people who have given up on the system,” Clasby said, adding that he worries about what’s coming down the pike for North Carolina.

The state budget problems might continue to compound, he said, leading to even more job losses in the local and state governmental sectors.

“It could be an even bigger problem next year,” Clasby said.

 

It’s all in the numbers

Franklin, head of NCCAT, gets emotional when she talks about having to lay off about half of the 82-member staff, which followed a budget cut by the state General Assembly from $6.1 million to $3.1 million.

This wasn’t about performance issues, this was about money, said Franklin.

“We’re losing good people,” Franklin said, apologizing for tearing up during the interview. “We also told them we hoped to be getting funding through grants and contracts — I hope to hire them back if we can.”

Lee said she has no bitter feelings toward NCCAT or Franklin, she just regrets losing a job she loved so much. Franklin, Lee said, did what she had to do following such drastic budget cuts.

“NCCAT is the only organization in the nation who does this sort of work for (state) teachers,” Lee said. “I cannot tell you how much it means to me.”

Lee has just two years left before she could draw full retirement benefits from the state, and she said there is a possibility that she’ll move to get the necessary time in with the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

There are jobs openings to be found locally, but they pay $8.50 to $9 or so an hour, said Ann Howell, branch manager in Sylva for the N.C. Employment Security Commission. Howell went last week to NCCAT to talk with the people being laid-off.

“I try to be positive,” the 26-year agency veteran said. “You’ve got to be positive — new doors open everyday. Right now, in these times, perhaps it’s not the brightest doors, but there are some jobs out there.”

The N.C. JobConnector is a new state service that’s proving helpful, she said. It uses an automated system that matches job orders and job seekers based on job-order requirements and job-seekers’ experiences. People are alerted by email to possible employment opportunities — kind of like match.com for employers and prospective employees.

Dale West, a regional manager for the Employment Security Commission based in Macon County, said she is stunned by the impact the construction drop-off had to Western North Carolina’s overall economy, and that the waves are continuing to roll in.

“I knew the construction trade was a major force in our economy, but I’m not sure I understood how big a force it was,” she said.

The jobs lost did not come in one fell swoop, West said, but in a continuous trickle from such tangential businesses as building supply companies.

“A few from lots of different places,” she said.

West also pointed out that many of the people who work in construction or related trades can’t draw unemployment because they worked as sub-contractors, and their bosses did not have to file unemployment taxes as a result.

Jackson County commissioners shift into reverse on hiring policy

When Jackson County’s new commissioners announced they would oversee all hiring to determine whether positions should be filled or wiped off the books, the mandate had a fiscally prudent, vigilant-watchdogs-of-taxpayer-dollars sound.

“I have to admit, this is causing somewhat of a problem in being able to manage this,” interim County Manager Chuck Wooten told the board last week, just more than a month after commissioners so tightly grabbed the reins.

Though commissioners control the budget, statutorily speaking the sheriff and register of deeds — both elected positions — have full powers to do the hiring and firing in their own departments, Wooten pointed out.

Wooten also asked: did commissioners really want to clog-up the system (about 4 percent of the Jackson County workforce is currently open) by scrutinizing positions mainly paid for using state dollars, such as at the health department and in social services, which have their own overseeing boards? And, what about contracted and grant-paid positions? Take a transit driver, 85 percent grant funded, as an example of the latter category, Wooten said. Do you need to personally approve who is hired?

Well, no, now that the problems being created by practically their very first official decision as commissioners (during a Dec. 6 meeting) has become clear, it turned out the board didn’t really want oversight of those hiring decisions. In a 5-0 vote, they agreed in those cases to let others — the departments or boards directly involved, or Wooten — make the hires.

Unlike municipalities in North Carolina, county commissioners must vote for their manager to be given hiring oversight. State law gives town managers that right without elected leaders’ say-so. Most of the state’s 100 counties’ board of commissioners automatically extend that power to the county manager hired to, well, “manage” the county.

Jackson County commissioners did, however, retain the review-before-advertising-any-county-positions paid for purely with county money, via the general fund. Though, it should be noted, Wooten advised the five men they might want to reconsider that decision, too.

Wooten was hired as a temporary replacement for former County Manager Ken Westmoreland, who either elected to leave voluntarily before the new board convened in December, or who was shown the door. This depending on whom you believe, Westmoreland (who said he was forced out) or Chairman Jack Debnam (who said “it was his decision”).

Wooten retired Jan. 1 after 30 years of experience overseeing Western Carolina University’s finances. He has said he expects to help commissioners hire a replacement county manager within six months or so.

Jackson County has three new commissioners: Debnam (a conservative independent); Doug Cody (a Republican) and Charles Elders (a Republican). Democrats Mark Jones and Joe Cowan round out the board.

Lingering recession prompts new round of Haywood job cuts

Haywood County commissioners have cut five full-time jobs and frozen four open positions to stave off a projected budget shortfall for the current fiscal year.

It marks the third straight year commissioners have cut county jobs to counter recession-driven budget deficits. Commissioners held a work session on the issue last week, where County Manager Marty Stamey suggested the job cuts to keep the budget in check.

The job cuts will target county departments involved in the construction trade. Building is still off from pre-recession levels, with a requisite drop in workload for county building inspectors, erosion control officers and well and septic tank permiters. Those departments are also bringing in less in fees. Stamey showed commissioners financial data to demonstrate the decline in building and real-estate-centric services.

The cuts will take the county down to 507 full-time positions, the smallest number of staff they’ve employed since they started keeping count in 2005. The employee count peaked out in 2009, when the county employed 557 full-time staff members, and the number has been dropping steadily every year, to 534 then 516.

Making the cuts would, he said, save the county $200,000 in the 2011-12 fiscal year, while keeping the four unfilled positions frozen would save an extra $250,000, for a total of $450,000 in savings.

Stamey recommended freezing the assistant county manager position, a title he formerly held until being promoted to the top job last fall. Other open positions that will be frozen include project specialist, IT technician and a human resource specialist.

Commissioners questioned Stamey about what effect these cuts would have on county staff, whether they would require layoffs or could be achieved through early retirements.

“Do they have people that are close to being ready to retire?” Commissioner Mike Sorrells asked of the three departments going under the axe. Stamey answered that, yes, some did, but it remains to be seen whether all five positions can be eliminated with retirements or relocations.

Commissioner Bill Upton expressed his reservations, saying he wasn’t sure how much further they could go following last year’s cuts.

“Down the road, it’s going to be tough, because I thought last year we got down to the bare bones and this is probably getting into the bone a little bit,” said Upton.

“We’re drilling into bone,” replied Stamey, who said that remaining county staff have been working increasingly hard over the last two years to makeup for the shortfall caused by losing colleagues.

Commissioner Kirk Kirkpatrick noted that in governmental situations it isn’t as easy to adjust budgets to revenues as it might be in business, because there’s still a certain threshold of services that need to be provided, regardless of how many people use them.

That is, in part, why trimming any more fat will be difficult going forward, and with $3.7 billion in state budget cuts looming, Commissioner Chairman Mark Swanger said he was uncomfortable with the unknown of what that might do to county budgets.

“The unknown here is what bothers me, what kinds of costs will be going to counties,” said Swanger. “It remains unknown what effect it will have on our budget, but it will not be a positive effect.”

Unpaid Ghost Town workers were warned pay might not come

Ghost Town in the Sky, an amusement park in Maggie Valley, failed to pay employees for their final two weeks of work before shutting down for the winter.

While most employees were told upfront that they might not be paid their full wages immediately and were given the choice to work or not, the company could still be in violation of state labor laws.

“The law says they must pay all accrued wages to employees on the regularly scheduled payday,” said Darrell Sanders, supervisor for Wage and Hour Bureau with the N.C. Department of Labor. “Even with the employees’ agreement, nobody can waive the law. As soon as midnight ticked by on payday, the company automatically went into violation of the law and will be until the employees are paid.”

CEO Steve Shiver said the company still plans to pay employees what they are owed.

“They will be paid as quickly as possible. I am doing everything I can every day to make sure that takes place,” said Shiver.

In the meantime, there may be little the employees can do about it other than wait. Ghost Town is operating under Chapter 11 bankruptcy with hopes of reorganizing and regaining its footing. Workers who are not paid by an employer usually take their complaints to the labor department, but the department has no jurisdiction when bankruptcy proceedings are in play.

“It is a large wrench to throw in the machinery,” Sanders said.

Ghost Town filed for bankruptcy early this year. In addition to a $9.5 million mortgage, the park has a trail of unpaid bills with more than 215 companies totaling $2.5 million, including local contractors, electricians, media outlets and equipment rental companies.

Shiver held a meeting with employees going into the final few weeks of the season in October to fill them in on the financial status of the amusement park.

When Shiver leveled with workers and told them cash flow was tight, it came as no surprise. A few times during the year, the park couldn’t make payroll on Friday and instead relied on revenue from weekend ticket sales to pay employees the following Monday. The park eventually moved payday from Friday to Monday on a permanent basis, according to employees. Even then, the park didn’t always make full payroll, and would only give employees a partial paycheck and make up the difference the following Monday after another weekend of revenue came in.

At the meeting, Shiver gave employees two choices: shut the park down early or remain open the rest of the October. If they stayed open, however, there was a chance they wouldn’t bring in enough revenue to pay everyone on time.

Shiver then left the room while employees voted with a show of hands whether to keep working. The vote was unanimous.

“We all knew there was a possibility we may not get paid,” said David Aldridge, a Maggie resident who worked at Ghost Town. “We were willing to risk it.”

Shiver said the dedication of employees is remarkable.

“I have such great employees,” Shiver said. “It shows the dedication of all of us, including myself, to make sure Maggie Valley and Ghost Town in the Sky and all that goes with it survives. I am very humbled by their support and continued efforts.”

While Shiver never suggested employees would be volunteering their time in exchange for no pay, that was certainly in the back of their minds, Aldridge said.

“We were asked if we were willing to take half our paychecks now and half later,” Aldridge said. “Nobody ever agreed to not get paid. Everybody expected to get their last paycheck.”

The paychecks haven’t been forthcoming yet, but Aldridge said he isn’t mad. He said most employees understand and care deeply about the park and want to help it succeed. Aldridge said Shiver was a good leader and an inspiration for employees.

“He was out there working every day as hard as everybody else. He was trying to do all he could to keep Ghost Town going,” Aldridge said.

Shiver has exemplified the all-hands-on-deck attitude that allowed Ghost Town to make it through the year.

“I bussed tables, I swept floors, I blew leaves off the streets to make sure our guests could enjoy themselves,” Shiver said.

Not all employees were at the meeting when Shiver leveled with the state and the informal vote was held, however. The meeting was billed as a non-mandatory staff meeting and the topic wasn’t shared in advance, so Ron Coates, a worker who lives in Hot Springs, opted not to make the hour-long drive on his day off to attend.

No one in management ever told him what had transpired or warned him that he may not be paid if he kept working.

“Nobody ever said we might not get paid,” Coates said.

Coates has filed a claim with the bankruptcy court for $386 after being told by the state Labor Department that was his only recourse.

Meanwhile, water to the amusement park has been shut off due to failure to pay bills, according to the Maggie Valley Sanitary District.

In tough times, local company looks to expand

In yet another piece of positive economic news, Waynesville-based Haywood Vocational Opportunities announced a proposed expansion that would create at least 50 new jobs.

HVO, which makes disposable medical supplies, plans to pay $400,000 for 10 acres at the Beaverdam Industrial Park in the eastern end of Haywood County and spend more than $1 million to construct a 40,000-square-foot building on the site.

The county recently spent $700,000 to grade the industrial site, and therefore is selling it at a loss. That’s just the nature of the business, said county Economic Development Director Mark Clasby. Grading industrial sites to ready them for building is one way to lure companies.

“That’s part of the economic development incentive, to work with existing businesses to retain them, or in this case, expand. That’s even better — it’s an investment in jobs for the future,” Clasby said.

HVO’s proposal has been OK’d by the Economic Development Commission, and is now awaiting final approval by county commissioners.

The company currently employs 315 full-time workers at its factory in the Hazelwood community. It also runs an employment and training program, which enrolls 120 people. The company operates under a unique business model — about 25 percent of its employee base at any given time has a disabling physical or mental condition that is a barrier to employment.

HVO has maintained a rapid rate of growth at a time when many businesses are struggling with the economic recession. The company moved into its current headquarters in 2005 and is already looking to expand. It added 72 new jobs in the last 18 months, mostly hourly positions, according to HVO President George Marshall. HVO is forecasting continued growth over the next 24 to 36 months.

“We have emerging business that, right now, I can’t comment on,” said Marshall.

The company plans to add 50 new jobs over that time period that will range from machine operators to assemblers. That’s apart from the jobs directly linked to construction of the building.

HVO makes a niche product that isn’t easily outsourced, which has helped it to weather the economic downturn.

“Basically, we’re in a real specialty market as it relates to healthcare,” Marshall said. “We produce custom surgical products for the healthcare industry, which, generally speaking, has not been able to be taken offshore. As commodity products have moved, this was one element that really could not practically, nor economically, be moved.”

HVO has developed a huge market for its products.

“Our customers are throughout the U.S. and international,” Marshall said. About 30 percent of HVO’s business is outside the country, including clients in Sydney.

Marshall said that HVO will aim to complete its new facility at the industrial park by the end of 2009.

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