ATLANTIC CITY — Now that the extra unemployment benefits issued during the COVID-19 pandemic have expired, officials in the casino and hospitality industries hope to see more applications come in for hundreds of vacant positions.
“That certainly is the hope,” said Bob Ellis, vice president of human resources for Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City. “Logic says that should happen, but you just don’t know. We understand there’s a lot of anxiety with COVID and people being out of work for a long time, but we’re hopeful.”
During a job fair at the casino Wednesday, more than 100 people filled out applications for positions including food and beverage services, housekeeping, spa and front desk. More than 60 positions were offered on the spot, according to casino officials.
Diana Towe, of Egg Harbor Township, said she was excited to apply for a job as an esthetician for the spa after being out of work during the pandemic.
“I went to (esthetician) school right before the pandemic began, so I’m excited to get back out there,” Towe said. “They said they’re looking for someone with two years of experience, but I’m just throwing my hat in the ring and came out to apply anyway.”
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Brandon Jackson, who recently moved from Philadelphia to Atlantic City, was applying for a position as a security guard.
“I worked throughout the pandemic. I was at Amazon for a little while and also working security in Philadelphia,” Jackson said. “But I recently relocated, and I wanted to continue working in security. Hard Rock is a nice place, and I’m feeling positive about the job.”
La-Kiesse Smith, of Atlantic City, also worked throughout the pandemic but was looking for a change of pace from working in health care.
“I’m used to working in a health care setting, so this is definitely a change of pace and scenery,” Smith said. “I applied for a position at the spa and as a host.”
“We’ve been looking for people all summer long,” Hard Rock property President Joe Lupo said. “We’re looking at a strong fall ahead with some conventions and live entertainment coming back, so we’re looking to continue providing some jobs to the local community.”
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Lupo said it’s not unusual to have to search for people to hire during the fall.
“A lot of the college kids have gone back to school,” he said. “So it’s not uncommon here in the Atlantic City market for the fall to take a different approach without the seasonal help.”
But since the casinos reopened in July 2020 after a three-month shutdown due to COVID-19, potential employees have been hard to come by.
“It’s been very hard to find people,” Ellis said. “I mean, we’ve gone through periods of the summer where we wouldn’t have a single applicant in certain positions. It’s been a challenge.”
Ellis said the restrictions placed on the J-1 visa program, which allows visitors from more than 200 countries to come to the United States to work, put a further strain on the job market.
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“This industry for so long has been reliant on students that come over and work on a J-1 visa,” Ellis said. “They come in seasonally and really help casinos bridge the gap for their busy season. We weren’t able to have a lot of that help (this year.)”
Officials at Borgata Hotel Casino and Spa are citing similar issues with finding employees.
“Borgata has had trouble recruiting along with every business in the Atlantic City market,” said Melodie Johnson, the casino’s president and CEO. “The challenge is a broad one and not exclusive to casinos.”
Johnson said Borgata is staying persistent in trying to find new employees, beginning with a job fair scheduled for 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sept. 15.
In March, a $1.9 trillion coronavirus package passed by the Biden administration granted unemployed Americans a $300 additional weekly payment that expired Sept. 4.
During a COVID-19 media briefing last week, Gov. Phil Murphy said he is not extending the benefits because it would cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars each week.
“The proper way to extend federal UI benefits is through federal action, not a patchwork of state ones. And it should be noted here that no state is extending this benefit beyond Sept. 4,” Murphy said.
Murphy said continuing the program would be “cost-prohibitive.”
“It would cost, at current, at least $314 million per week and perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars more.”
The state’s unemployment rate is currently sitting at 7.3%. In April 2020, it had peaked at 16.6%, federal data show.
Jane Bokunewicz, faculty director of the Lloyd D. Levenson Institute of Gaming, Hospitality & Tourism at Stockton University, said ending unemployment could have a positive impact on applications.
“The decision not to extend unemployment benefits may have some positive impact on the ability of local employers to fill open positions,” Bokunewicz said. “Individuals coming off unemployment will need to find work to support themselves and their families, and the hospitality industry, with its variety of jobs and competitive wage and benefit packages, may be an attractive choice.”
Bokunewicz noted unemployment benefits were not the only factor in the labor shortage seen across all industries during the pandemic.
“The pandemic provided many people with the opportunity to re-examine their job prospects, learn new skills and change careers,” Bokunewicz said. “When thousands of hospitality workers were let go or furloughed in 2020, not all returned to their previous positions. Some may have instead pursued a career change or even early retirement.”
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