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LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- Teresa Cabrera and Antonio Valle have been legal residents of the United States for almost two decades since immigrating from Mexico. Full citizenship, however, always seemed to elude them.
Whether it was the cost of filing the application or the challenge of the citizenship exam, the couple, married for 17 years, seemed to hit a hurdle.
When Station Casinos began offering its employees a chance to participate in a citizenship assistance program, the pair, who have worked at Sunset Station since 1999, jumped at the opportunity.
In August, both Cabrera and Valle were sworn in as U.S. citizens.
The program was one of several ideas implemented by the casino operator last year based on responses to a companywide survey asking employees what types of in-house benefits would be helpful to them.
More than one-third of Station Casinos' 14,000 employees participated in the survey.
"It was much easier than trying to figure it out for ourselves," Station Casinos President Lorenzo Fertitta said. "We've always tried to have a high level of communication with our employees. The survey gave us a better idea as to what they would like to see to make our work environment a better place."
National human resources specialists believe progressive employers try to gear their benefit programs to be in tune with their employees' needs. Steve Kane, whose Hillsborough, Calif., company has advised a range of national companies on work-force issues, said the gearing-programs-to-employee-needs trend is important for service-industry businesses, such as casinos.
Kane said there are substantial data showing a correlation between employee and customer satisfaction.
"Station Casinos seems to be creating a work environment where the employees feel the employer values what they do," Kane said. "It's reflective to how they treat the customer. If the employee is happy, he'll treat the customer well. And if the customer feels like he's being treated well, he'll come back. I would suspect the company will have a much lower turnover rate if employees are satisfied."
With 13 casinos in the Las Vegas Valley and several others in planning, drawing and retaining a large employee base has become paramount to Station Casinos' business plan.
Some of the other companywide initiatives that were initiated as a direct result of the survey include the participation in a federal grant program to help employees achieve first-time home ownership; an adult education program; and a low-interest loan program that allows workers to buy computers.
In 2006, 28 Station Casinos employees gained U.S. citizenship through the program. Some 260 employees are still attending the classes.
The company offers citizenship application classes, a payroll advance for the application, study materials for the citizenship exam, classes on U.S. history, government and English as a second language, and help with interviewing.
Station Casinos also celebrates when an employees takes the oath of U.S. citizenship.
"The company really helped us with the cost and we learned a lot about the United States," said Cabrera, a Sunset Station housekeeper. Her husband works in internal maintenance.
Both employees have become job coaches and are encouraging other noncitizen Station Casinos employees to study for U.S. citizenship.
"We have some girls like me in housekeeping taking the classes," Cabrera said. "It's exciting."
Fertitta said the programs are a modern version of where Station Casinos started, as the tiny Bingo Palace in the 1970s that grew into Palace Station.
"I've probably said this a thousand times, but the foundation and ideals that my father established when he founded our company with less than 100 employees and the foundation is what we've tried to continue," Fertitta said.
"We don't look at providing a great place to work as a challenge; it's a way of life," he added.
The efforts have paid off in other ways.
The company was recently listed, for the third year in a row, as one of the Top 100 best companies to work for by Fortune magazine.
Station Casinos climbed 37 spots to 18th on the list and was the only gaming corporation selected.
Fertitta said making the Fortune list was important because it gives an outside endorsement of the company's employee relations efforts.
Kane agreed that the recognition can be a source of pride for an employer.
Although he said casinos have historically been places with high rates of employee turnover, service businesses realize two benefits when they maintain a satisfied work force: the costs to constantly train new workers are reduced and satisfied employees translate into customer satisfaction.
"When you think about this type of service business, it's not Apple where you're trying to create a new iPhone," Kane said.
"You want your customers to like the way they've been treated and that starts with the employee."
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