Gulf casinos cut off aid

JACKSON, Miss. – Thousands of casino employees on the Gulf Coast are losing insurance benefits and salaries as the companies end post-Katrina assistance to concentrate on rebuilding gambling houses hammered by the hurricane.

Two New Orleans casinos remain closed, as do 12 casinos that once dotted Mississippi’s Gulf Coast. Most of those were wrecked by the Aug. 29 hurricane’s powerful winds and storm surge. Nearly all the companies agreed to continue paying workers on a temporary basis, but that’s ending, or has already stopped.

Larry Gregory, executive director of the Mississippi Gaming Commission, said Wednesday nearly 14,000 casino employees remain out of gambling-related jobs. Mississippi coast casinos employed 16,000 people before Katrina.

“I understand a lot of those people left the coast for other jobs,” he said. “A lot of the people have gone to Las Vegas.”

Sherry O’Brien, a former blackjack dealer at Biloxi’s Beau Rivage resort and a 41-year-old mother of two, said she’s one of the fortunate ones who’s found a new job at a storage company, though she took a lower salary simply for the benefits.

“It’s very difficult,” O’Brien said. “I went from making a nice salary to making about a third of what I made. I’ll have to go into my savings, and things are just extremely different.”

Employment officials say it’s too soon to predict what the discontinued payments will mean to the region’s employment health.

MGM Mirage Inc., which owns Beau Rivage, paid its 3,100 employees and provided insurance for three months after Katrina gutted the lower floors of the beachfront casino and hotel. But that ended Tuesday.

The casino, which had been the coast’s showcase gambling resort, sent letters last week informing employees they would not likely return to work until the anniversary of Katrina next year, O’Brien said.

Like her, about 1,000 former employees have found work elsewhere in the company or with contractors rebuilding the casino, MGM Mirage spokesman Alan Feldman said.

Las Vegas-based Harrah’s Entertainment Inc. paid its 8,000 employees who worked at casinos in Biloxi, Gulfport and New Orleans full pay and benefits until Nov. 26, said Jan Jones, senior vice president for governmental relations and communications.

“There comes a point … when you need to make some kind of decision about what’s the right thing to do and take into consideration what’s best for shareholders,” Jones said.

The company has promised to continue to pay benefits for the 2,600 employees of Harrah’s New Orleans, which survived intact, until the first workers are called back sometime after March 1. Biloxi and Gulfport employees will receive benefits until the end of the year, Jones said.

Harrah’s executives have said it could be more than two years before its Grand Casino resorts in Gulfport and Biloxi, which were torn from their moorings and washed away, are replaced with permanent, shore-based structures. It’s unclear whether the company will even return to Gulfport.

Pinnacle Entertainment Inc., owner of destroyed Casino Magic Biloxi, paid about 1,000 workers full salaries and benefits until the end of October, said Kim Townsend, marketing vice president in Las Vegas.

“For the most part, most people have moved on,” Townsend said. “We’re moving forward with rebuilding in mind.”

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