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Casino Workers Demand Change as Indiana Gaming Commission Welcomes Industry Updates

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Indiana Gaming Commission

Shelby Wood (left) and Kate O’Neil (right) address the Indiana Gaming Commission Thursday. Photo by Victoria Ratliff, TheStateHouseFile.com

The Indiana Gaming Commission met Thursday for its first hearing since Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb signed a controversial bill that expands gambling and legalizes sports wagering in casinos and on mobile devices.

At the commission meeting, leaders provided updates in response to House Enrolled Act 1015,the law that will open the door to new licensing opportunities for casino operators in Gary and Terre Haute, Indiana, among other provisions.  

Amid these changes, including a possible Sept. 1 start date for sports wagering, some remain concerned that other critical aspects of the gambling industry — as well as its real-time effects on local communities and economies — remain overshadowed.

Unite Here Local 23, for example, a subsidiary of the national Unite Here service workers union that advocates for employees working at the service level in Indiana casinos, submitted a letter to the IGC arguing the industry is changing without consistent and fair input from all employees.

In the letter, the organization pinpoints top-down leadership adjustments made in Caesar’s Entertainment, Indiana’s primary casino operator. It goes on to allege how a single stakeholder in the company — Carl Icahn, a nationally recognized corporate investor who secured three seats on the operator’s board — managed to singlehandedly gain control of the selection process for the next CEO with less than a 10 percent stake in the company.

By consolidating power in the hands of a few, the organization argues, companies like Caesar’s Entertainment are able to engage in severe mismanagement with few consequences for those in charge. 

“Our members report that some regional properties still need significant repair and improvements and that staffing levels remain at bare-bones levels,” Marlene Patrick-Cooper, president of Unite Here Local 23, wrote in the letter to the commission. “More of the same will not sustain our industry.”

Kate O’Neil, research director for Unite Here, presented the concern to the commission alongside Shelby Wood, a food service employee at Indiana Grand Racing & Casino in Shelbyville, Indiana.

Wood has worked for Caesar’s Entertainment-owned casino for just under a year as part of its 24-hour food service team. She said employees like her face exhausting and unjust work conditions that could jeopardize positive changes to Indiana’s gambling industry.

Shift teams are often short-staffed and forced to work long hours with no guarantee for pay raises, Wood said. That’s why she started researching opportunities to translate worker frustration into an active union, a possibility she is already exploring with Unite Here Local 23.

“We know that these jobs can be better,” Wood concluded. “I know Caesar’s can make these jobs better because they are doing it at other properties.”

On a personal level, the 23-year-old said she fears sustained poor working conditions will prevent her from getting married and purchasing a home. Wood said she is already riddled with student loan payments to debt accrued from her time as a public relations and women’s studies major at Purdue University.

O’Neil determined it is the responsibility of the gaming commission to better determine whether Indiana’s current and future casino operators have the state’s best interests at heart.

“We want to see investment in Indiana casinos, but fear that investment could be jeopardized by Wall Street investors trying to make a quick buck,” O’Neil said.

While commission members did not offer much of a response to the testimony, commission chairman Mike McMains assured the pair the commission will take their concerns into consideration moving forward.

In the meantime, however, the gaming commission is also under sizeable pressure to implement the updates introduced by HEA 1015.

Sara Tait, the commission’s executive director, said the commission is doing its best to finalize the structure to guide sports wagering, for example. At the meeting, Tait announced the creation of a new sports wagering division within the commission to be led by Dennis Mullen, formerly deputy general counsel for the agency.

Under HEA 1015, the commission is expected to open applications to sports wagering vendors on July 1. Then, if all goes according to plan, the vendors may begin conducting business on Sept. 1, allowing patrons to bet on games involving human competitors but not on e-sporting events, high school athletics or youth teams.

However, Tait said the commission is “making no promises for a Sept. 1 launch,” noting transparency and efficiency are priorities for the commission. She also didn’t rule out a launch in two tiers, which could provide the commission with more time to review vendor applications.

“There are many factors outside of our control,” Tait said.

Tait said the organization hopes to provide a draft of the sports wagering vendor application for public comment.

Erica Irish is a reporter for TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.