ATLANTIC CITY — Mayra Gonzalez stood near a line of cars at Bader Field directing traffic to move forward through the winding line.
The 40-year-old Pleasantville resident and Unite Here Local 54 member has been volunteering at every food distribution event that gives out-of-work casino employees and community members boxes of food amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Thursday’s donation event was no different. And along with volunteering her time, Gonzalez — who worked at the buffet at Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa — planned to take home food for her family.
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The city’s casinos have been closed for more than two months. And even as the state slowly comes down from the virus’ peak, there is no reopening date for the casinos in the near future.
“I have never experienced something like this before,” Gonzalez said of not being able to work in more than two months. “It's so hard. I just got my employment benefits a couple of weeks ago, but I know that some people haven't received anything yet."
“We just want to go back to work,” she said. “That’s all we want.”
Aside from being upset about being out of work, she’s also scared. Her husband is a truck driver and is still working. She’s worried about his health and the potential that he could infect their family.
And when the casinos do reopen, she wants them to reopen safely for both visitors and employees. But as a buffet worker, she’s concerned she may not even get her job back.
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“I am afraid,” she said. “I think I’m one of the last people they are going to bring back.”
Thursday's event had enough donated food to feed about 2,200 families. Donations came in from Bimbo Bakeries in Pennsylvania, the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, the Community FoodBank of New Jersey—Southern Branch, Unite Here Local 54, the New Jersey State AFL-CIO and private individuals.
Going forward, the unions involved plan to hold food distribution events every other week as long as there is a need, said Donna DeCaprio, financial secretary treasurer of Local 54.
“We’re anxious to get back to work in a safe way,” she said. “There has to be measures in place for health and sanitation, but in the meantime we’re going to make sure our members are taken care of.”
She added the event had about 30 workers and 70 volunteers to make everything run smoothly.
Hank McKay, president of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union, said his workers started Tuesday and stopped at about six union member locations in Pennsylvania and New Jersey to pick up baked goods, more than 60,000 pounds, for the event.
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“It feels good to be able to help those who can't help themselves,” McKay said.
And even those in need are still helping others.
Cate Dziegrenuk, 43, of Ventnor, who worked in the casinos for 20 years and was a banquet server at Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City, volunteered at the distribution event.
“Emotionally, I'm OK,” Dziegrenuk said. “I just keep focusing on gratitude and everything that I do have.”
But she misses her job.
And even though she can’t wait to go back, she’s concerned about making sure everyone entering the casinos is healthy and safe.
“I like what I do. It's a way to earn a living,” she said. “I'm ready to go back. I think everybody is. I want to get back to work just as much as the next person, but I think the guests need to feel safe.”