Monday, January 16, 2006

Down with the clown (part 1)

My advance apologies for those of you with coulrophobia.

The Boardwalk Hotel and Casino closed its doors last week, after 30 years in the business. (You can find it between the Monte Carlo and the Bellagio on the map here.) MGM Mirage is tearing it down soon and building the massive Project CityCenter over the next 3 years. A few months ago I would have written off the news as a necessary loss in the constant development of the Las Vegas Strip, onward and upward and outward.

Now my perspective is slightly more personal. In November, tired of being too passive in the legal job search, I decided to take on some sort of holiday work, law-based or not. Through a temp agency I learned that the Boardwalk was looking for cage cashiers to work until the place closed sometime in January. The finite time frame and the unusual backdrop appealed to me, and so I attended an orientation in gaming policy with about 20 other candidates, some of whom had experience. I guess I asked the right questions, because I was the only one in that group who was hired.

I started training two days later. Because the Boardwalk was ultimately doomed, I was entering an environment that was both casual and depressing. I settled into a swing shift: 3 p.m. to 11 p.m., Friday through Tuesday. My sleeping and dining (and blogging) habits became quite warped, but I liked the fact that I was working when the casino actually had customers there. (Once I filled in for a co-worker's morning shift, and I learned who gambles at 7 a.m. on a weekday: nobody.)

There is a hierarchy of sorts when it comes to casino employees. Some jobs are harder. Some employees are more visible. And the salary discrepancies are glaring. If we remove management from the equation, my guess (and hope) is that security workers are paid the most, but their shifts are longer, the days are rarely smooth, and I doubt they get tipped. Cashiers, retail shop employees, and front desk clerks get a fair hourly salary and direct interaction with customers, which means tips. (As I understand it, cashier tips were more common and customary in other, larger casinos.) The card dealers probably come next; they're split up into groups, each of which takes regular breaks and then rotates in and out of the tables. They're also salaried and tipped, but their exposure to a generous customer is purely random.

The Boardwalk was a throwback Strip casino in that it never switched to a paper voucher system of slot machine payouts, so the machines were still filled with coins: nickels, quarters, and dollar tokens. What this meant was more work for the slot machine attendants and technicians, who would constantly have to attend to machines that ran out of money, and the displeased customers who were less than willing to wait. I hope they were paid well, but I can't imagine they were tipped appropriately.

Generally, hospitality workers -- valets, bellhops, food servers, cocktail waitresses -- must survive on tips, because some are paid less than minimum wage. But in a dying casino like the Boardwalk, there wasn't enough business to continue making a decent living. In the case of cocktail waitresses, a certain percentage of tips were shared with the bartenders. Then you have the cooks, maids, and maintenance people, whose work was evident, even if their visible presence was not.

Sadly, all of these people had uncertain futures when I arrived. As of last week, some had lined up jobs at other casinos, and others were still looking. I only got to know a few people, and was deliberately vague about myself. I let out a few facts: I moved here from Cincinnati, and I went to college. I felt it best not to mention that I was an attorney. (Once I learned of some of my co-workers' problems, I decided that was the right decision.)

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