Atlantic City Casinos Lay Off Workers In Massive Numbers, Try To Chart A Path Forward

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By early March, major U.S. health experts were beginning to recommend fist-bumps or elbow-bumps in place of handshakes, out of concern for COVID-19.

On March 11, the NBA stunningly shut down after one of its players tested positive. The aftershocks were almost immediate and severe — with Atlantic City’s nine casinos a particular focus in New Jersey.

Here’s a recap of how the casinos reacted to Governor Murphy’s order that all casinos be closed as of March 16, and the impact on the city’s 33,000 casino workers:

Borgata, ever the market leader in the industry, announced through its parent company MGM Resorts International that Borgata and its sister properties were informed of temporary layoffs. Borgata — which opened to great fanfare in 2003 — also laid off employees in 2008, 2010, 2011, and 2019, a reflection of the volatility of the gambling industry.

A week after Borgata, Resorts Casino workers got the same official news. On March 25, it was Hard Rock’s turn. A day later, layoff notices went out to Ocean Casino employees as well as those at the Caesars, Harrah’s, and Bally’s properties. And so it went.

The timing of the layoffs also varied. Ocean Resorts’ layoffs became effective March 27, Hard Rock and Resorts on March 30, and the three Caesars Entertainment properties on March 31.

The way forward for AC casino workers

All of the casino operators offered two weeks compensation as well as an extension of health benefits, with Tropicana offering an additional two weeks pay. Borgata and Golden Nugget are offering full health coverage until the end of June.

At Hard Rock, employees can use their accrued time off and two more weeks offered by the company, potentially delaying a need for unemployment until May.

The hope is that the federal stimulus package fills in a sufficient gap in pay for most workers until the busy summer season, which traditionally starts on Memorial Day weekend.

Atlantic County and all of South Jersey have been far less severely impacted than North Jersey, where proximity to New York City — the national epicenter of the virus — has taken its toll.

Bergen County, closest to Manhattan, has by far the most positive tests in the state with more than 4,000 as of Thursday. Atlantic County had a mere 50, for the lowest per capita rate among the state’s 21 counties. Total deaths also reveal a wide disparity, with 420 in Bergen and only one in Atlantic County.

But Atlantic City draws visitors from all over, and the atmosphere of casinos — celebrating tourists, alcohol, and close proximity of table game players — inevitably will lead to difficult choices for Murphy at whatever point the state finally begins to get a handle on COVID-19.

The American Gaming Association has estimated that even a mere two-month shutdown — which appears all but certain — would lead to $1.1 billion in lost economic activity in the state.

“Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City is committed to our team members during these unprecedented times, ensuring that our communication has been open and direct,” Joe Lupo, president of Hard Rock Atlantic City, said in a statement. “COVID-19 has, and will continue to have, a tremendous financial impact on our team and business, resulting in incredibly difficult decisions made now and in the future.”

Other virus-related disruptions

Atlantic City’s biggest annual gaming event, the East Coast Gaming Congress, recently was postponed from April 27-28 to Oct. 26-27. The Harrah’s Waterfront Conference is still the scheduled venue, and Murphy remains listed as the keynote speaker.

“This move, both necessary and prudent, will ensure that we will meet our goal of offering a full roster of speakers, including CEOs, leading suppliers, regulators, and legislators in a safe and comfortable environment,” organizers said.

Also delayed was the March 31 deadline for casinos to file detailed financial statements reflecting the result of their performance for the fourth quarter of 2019.  That deadline has been pushed back by 30 days in light of the disruptions of work flow in the last several weeks.

Boardwalk deserted — but open

The Atlantic City Boardwalk was remarkably deserted during NJ Online Gambling’s visit there on March 19 — which should have been the opening day of the “March Madness” men’s college basketball 64-team scramble.

But even as boardwalks up and down the Jersey Shore have shuttered, the fabled Atlantic City Boardwalk remains open.

Health officials have tended to recommend keeping recreational areas open for the purpose of exercise, not socializing.

City Council President George Tibbitt on March 25 called a suggestion of a closure “the dumbest thing I have ever heard.

Mayor Marty Small Sr., however, after initially saying, “Absolutely not,” said on March 26 that he is monitoring the situation.

“If I continue to get the information that I am receiving of people gathering on the boardwalk and not practicing social distancing, as quick as I made the decision to keep it open, I will close it without hesitation. Public safety is paramount,” Small told nj.com.

AC mayor trying a longshot

Small has another goal in mind in the meantime for this summer, following on an idea floated by NBA officials of possibly holding some sort of tournament in a single location:

Photo by Racheal Grazias / Shutterstock.com

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John Brennan

John Brennan has covered NJ and NY sports business and gaming since 2002 and was a Pulitzer Prize Finalist in 2008, while reporting for The Bergen County Record.

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