Employee Engagement

Casinos scramble for post-pandemic talent as business rebounds

By Rick Bell

Jun. 18, 2021

Casinos across the United States were among the hardest hit businesses as the hospitality and travel industries suffered through the pandemic.

Conventioneers and gamblers disappeared and unemployment soared as the iconic Las Vegas Strip looked more like a ghost town than a glitzy, bustling entertainment mecca. And the numbers tell a bleak tale.

Gambling revenues slid by 31 percent in 2020, according to an annual report by the American Gaming Association. By comparison, the report noted that the industry’s economic tumble in 2020 far outdistanced the 8.4 percent decrease during the Great Recession. And, the Las Vegas unemployment rate reached 30 percent at the height of the pandemic, according to reports.

Business and employees slowly return

But the casino business is bouncing back. Employees are now being snapped up to fill thousands of vacant positions as the Las Vegas unemployment rate has slipped back to single digits. Many of them will be working the conventions — the Society for Human Resource Management and HR Technology Conference among them — that are finally returning to in-person events in Las Vegas this fall.

Along with the mega-corporations that line The Strip, Eureka Casinos appears to have weathered the storm and is shaking off the pandemic’s effects to fully reopen for business. With Nevada properties in Las Vegas and Mesquite and a casino in New Hampshire, Eureka Casinos is the only employee-owned gaming company in the United States. That distinction puts Eureka Casinos in a unique position to entice job candidates in a desperate battle to staff up as visitors return.

The battle for talent

The scarcity of good talent is particularly acute as casinos rush to re-staff, said Eureka Casinos Chief Operating Officer Andre Carrier. Any casino’s growth is tempered by its ability to field a qualified workforce, he added.

To be competitive in talent acquisition, Carrier said Eureka Casinos instituted hiring bonuses and is offering employees flexible hours and dual rates to fit staffing needs and schedules. But their key competitive advantage is employee ownership, he said.

“It means that our employees are provided with a long-term retirement benefit with no direct contribution,” he said. “This is an exceptional benefit and one we hope allows us to not only to retain our talented people, but attract future employees.”

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With an employee stock ownership plan, or ESOP, employees take on an owner’s mindset, which means a stronger sense of buy-in to the business and each other, Carrier said. It became especially valuable as COVID-19 swept across the industry.

“The pandemic was an unimaginable crisis with much of the company’s business closing for nearly three months,” Carrier said. “The challenge was to establish new systems to care for the physical, financial and emotional needs of the employee owners rapidly and effectively.”

Research has shown that companies with an ESOP are less likely to lay people off and keep employees working than conventionally owned businesses. Employee ownership has helped Eureka Casinos build a family style atmosphere for employees among the massive gaming conglomerates.

Building employee engagement

Engagement was a huge priority for Eureka Casinos throughout the pandemic, Carrier said. Being a mega-corporation would have impeded their ability to focus on the needs of their 600 employees, 70 percent of whom are hourly.

“One of the main ways we kept our employees engaged throughout our three-month closure was a weekly drive-through food pantry,” he said. “Many of our employees volunteered to pack food baskets and pass them out, and we had volunteer drivers deliver baskets. This was just one more way that we came together as a family business.”

Producing videos on the expected timeline for the state’s shutdown, answering common questions and preparing employees for a return to work kept everyone updated, Carrier said.

Carrier said employees were paid “for as long as possible before any need for unemployment” during their closure.

“We also allowed employees to use paid time off if needed and paid for health care benefits while we were closed,” he said. Some departments remained on duty during the entire closure, he said, noting how the engineering team worked to fabricate all the Plexiglas dividers that were a requirement for reopening.

Vaccinating employees

Once vaccines were approved, Eureka Casinos worked with government agencies and local hospitals to develop a vaccination center and a process for employees and the community to get vaccinated. They created a reservations platform and staffed the center as well, he said.

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A rewards program also was established for employees wanting to be vaccinated.

“Any employee who gets vaccinated receives a cash bonus,” he said. “Once the company reaches two specific overall vaccination thresholds, additional bonuses are paid out to vaccinated employees.”

Tight talent pool

Carrier told Las Vegas television station KTNV that the pool of available worker talent in Las Vegas will remain tight as venues prepare for the second half of 2021. “This is arguably one of the most difficult times ever to find new people to join your company.”

But Carrier is optimistic that his casinos will fully rebound in large part because of their employees.

“Having hope for the future is a core value for Eureka Casinos, and the pandemic taught us how important that value is.”

Rick Bell is Workforce’s editorial director.

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