Help has arrived. Hundreds of laid-off casino hotel workers lined up Wednesday to apply for unemployment benefits and other resources at a massive support operation in the Atlantic City Convention Center.
The AC Unites Here resource center, a cooperative effort between state and union officials, offers a range of services now needed by thousands of casino hotel workers laid off in recent days.
Nearly 5,000 workers lost their jobs this week, as Showboat Casino Hotel and Revel Casino Hotel shuttered. About 1,000 more face a similar fate, as Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino plans to close later this month.
The resource center offers help with unemployment benefits, job training, health insurance and food assistance, among other services. It is slated to stay open during business hours through Sept. 10.
"I came in here at 8:15," said Vipin Sheth, a day-one Revel employee waiting in line moments before the resource center opened around 9:15 Wednesday morning. Sheth, 65, of Galloway Township, lost his cashier job Tuesday when Revel closed.
Sheth said he's worked as a casino cashier for decades and, even if he wanted to leave the local gambling industry, which has been rocked by a violent contraction in recent years, he's not sure he could.
"We're getting older now," he said, referring to his wife, who works at Resorts Casino Hotel. "It's very hard to (enter) any other kind of field."
As the center opened, the neat line that had formed outside it grew amorphous, with people jockeying for position, apparently worried that their place in the queue would affect the services they received. A staffer from Unite-HERE Local 54, which helped create the resource center and represents many of the jobless, assured them they would all be served Wednesday as he let in groups of 10.
In the cavernous hall housing the center, it quickly became clear that the job losses that have swept Atlantic City didn't discriminate; assistance was available in a huge array of languages, including Bangla, Creole and multiple Chinese dialects.
Twenty or so booths were set up in orderly rows, each serving a specific need. Atlantic County helped with food stamps; Atlantic City Electric with energy assistance; the Atlantic Cape May Workforce Investment Board with job training.
Minutes later, at a press conference in a nearby room, Harold Wirths, commissioner of the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development, called the center "one of the best collaborative efforts I've ever seen put together in my entire career."
Bob McDevitt, president of Local 54, told reporters "This is not a funeral. This is not an obituary. We're not here to declare the death of a city. We're here to begin the renewal of a city."
Ruth Ann Joyce, a bartender who began working at Showboat with her husband when it opened in 1987, said they raised a family on the strength of their careers at the property.
"For the past 27-and-a-half years, we had the American dream," she said. "We had good jobs. We made good money. We had excellent benefits."
Today, she said, "I'm not only here to apply for the assistance which I now need, I'm here to help others apply for the assistance that they now need too."
"All are invited here," she said. "No one will be turned away from this center."
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