ATLANTIC CITY — Casino industry, labor and government leaders have embraced a proposal to scale back the number of J-1 visa workers at the city’s gambling halls in an effort to provide more jobs to local residents.
The phasing out of some J-1 visa workers in favor of residents could start as early as next spring, and job training programs to get prospective employees prepared to work are slated to begin this fall.
The Casino Association of New Jersey, Unite Here Local 54, the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, and city and state government will all play a role in creating and implementing vocational training programs with a focus on prioritizing jobs for city and county residents, according to multiple sources familiar with the proposal.
“We’ve always been receptive of the idea of putting Atlantic City people to work first,” said Steve Callender, Casino Association of New Jersey president and Atlantic City regional president for Caesars Entertainment Inc. “So it’s going to have to be a program that is well thought out and organized and gets people on board.”
The exact number of foreign students and workers employed by Atlantic City’s nine casinos varies year to year, but proponents of the idea say the number of jobs that could open up for locals is, at least, several hundred.
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Mayor Marty Small Sr. approached the casino industry early this year and secured a commitment for a May job fair for city residents. In March, the coronavirus shut down the casino industry and put off any plans to hold the job fair.
“This further clarifies my administration’s stance with the good people of the City of Atlantic City, working with the casino industry, towards employing more Atlantic City residents, which is a priority,” Small said Wednesday. “I’m happy that this is going to happen.”
Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City co-owner Joe Jingoli made the proposal pitch to the Casino Association during the industry group’s monthly meeting Tuesday night. While details of the proposal are still being ironed out, Jingoli said the idea was warmly received by the other casino members.
Bob McDevitt, president of casino workers’ union Local 54, said the parties involved are eyeing a September start for vocational training programs and will “absolutely meet a spring deadline” to have people lined up and ready to work.
“Probably before that, too, because some of the jobs, the need is much higher and (the casinos) are short-staffed now and they’ll be short in the winter,” he said.
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Most of the current crop of Atlantic City casino executives have strong ties to the city and region, and, collectively, recognize the industry’s shortcomings in providing good-paying jobs to locals.
“There’s going to be some pain, and it’s pain that should have happened 30 years ago,” Jingoli said. “We’re going to have to deal with that now. And we’ll keep going until we get this right.”
“There is, and has been, a problem as long as I’ve been in the local and going back to when they started (hiring J-1 visa workers) back in the early 2000s,” McDevitt said.
Small said everyone involved recognizes that Atlantic City residents have not prioritized in terms of casino employment, particularly when it comes to middle- and upper-management roles. He said “government and casinos could have done better” over the 42 years of legalized gambling in Atlantic City.
“But we’re not about finger-pointing,” the mayor said. “We’re moving forward and creating opportunities.”