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Casino jobs crisis needs local hiring program and indoor dining

Casino jobs crisis needs local hiring program and indoor dining

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Unemployment in Atlantic City’s casino industry continues at crisis levels despite dramatic improvement in the data for COVID-19 in New Jersey.

The state Division of Gaming Enforcement recently reported that more than 4,000 people have lost their jobs in the industry since last July and about 8,500 are out of work on furloughs.

For months the city’s casinos were shut under Gov. Phil Murphy’s emergency lockdown in response to the coronavirus hotspot of North Jersey-New York City. He announced they could reopen fully with safeguards around the Fourth of July — but then reversed himself and kept a ban on indoor dining in the casinos and throughout the state.

That has limited restaurants in New Jersey to serving outside only, unlike all of the states around it. Murphy has given no indication when he might relent or end his six months of emergency rule.

Bob McDevitt, president of Unite Here Local 54, said most of the union’s restaurant workers “are just sitting out there, waiting” and less than half of members are back to work.

In the midst of this bleak jobs crisis with no end in sight, a ray of employment hope appeared for Atlantic City and Atlantic County residents.

A public/private coalition of casino industry stakeholders is planning to shift possibly several hundred casino jobs currently held by temporary foreign workers to local residents instead.

The Casino Association of New Jersey, Local 54, the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, and city and state governments expect to phase out some of the industry’s workers who are here on J-1 visas.

They are also creating vocational training programs whose priority will be to prepare city and county residents for such jobs. Programs might start as soon as September and participants should start being ready to work by next spring. McDevitt said some might be hired before then because in certain areas casinos are short-staffed.

Local jobs going to local residents helps strengthen the region in many ways. The degree of coordination and cooperation across the range of stakeholders is part of a trend that is helping revive Atlantic City. There’s every reason to think that the industry will return to growth after the pandemic ends, since it had 21 straight months of increases in total gaming revenue before the state closed the casinos.

Meanwhile, the industry needs to be able to serve guests food indoors with the adaptations that have become the new pandemic norm around the country.

Delaware and Connecticut allow indoor dining with distancing restrictions and other safeguards. Pennsylvania allows such indoor dining in many counties, just not in its big city of Philadelphia unitl Sept. 8. Even New York state allows indoor dining everywhere except in New York City — the nation’s biggest city and hottest COVID hotspot by far.

Murphy’s inaction is costing hundreds of thousands of jobs by treating all of New Jersey the same as New York City, where he worked as a Wall Street investment banker.

The justification for that economic damage looks thinner with each passing day.

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