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Alana Roberts

Casinos: Looks Just One Aspect of Standards for Servers

31 March 2005

LAS VEGAS -- For cocktail servers in Las Vegas casinos, it's the survival of the fittest.

And cutest.

And youngest.

Employees' lawyers and women's issues experts say nature has nothing on the Darwinesque workplace inhabited by cocktail servers.

Local gaming officials say appearance and attitude standards are an important part of their business' overall success.

"We're pretty unusual in that regard," Joanne Goodwin, director of the Women's Research Institute of Nevada and an associate professor of history at UNLV, said about Las Vegas. "Young women come here for high-tip jobs. There's plenty of them to be had in terms of supply and demand. The thing is, the casinos and the women who take those positions seem to have reached an accommodation."

Leaders of UNITE HERE Local 54 and women's issues experts expressed outrage when the Borgata in Atlantic City recently implemented a weight-limit policy for its cocktail servers. The policy forbids cocktail servers, which are men and women, from gaining 7 percent of their body weight.

"It's a way to keep a young workforce," said Richard Segerblom, an employee's attorney who has represented cocktail servers in lawsuits over appearance standards. "People just naturally tend to age and increase weight. That basically means you're going to keep 20- to 25-year-old hard bodies. It's really a sad commentary on our culture that we put people through that, but if that's what the customer wants the hotels are going to try to provide (it)."

Consumer advocates and gaming industry leaders say high appearance standards are important to the overall success of gaming properties.

Anthony Curtis, publisher of Las Vegas Advisor, a consumer Web site for visitors of Las Vegas, said good-looking cocktail servers help attract gamblers to gaming resorts.

"If you're going to be young and hip and slick and sexy you've got to look the part," Curtis said. "It's part of the image that you're going to have good-looking men and women."

He said the resorts that are seeking to attract the young-and-hip crowd include the Palms, Rio, Mandalay Bay, the Hard Rock and the Venetian.

Curtis said some Las Vegas casinos have an older cocktail-serving force and those casinos aren't able to attract consumers looking for a young-and-hip atmosphere as well.

"Some of the places in Vegas have gotten kind of trapped over the years in situations with unions," Curtis said. "Some of the places in Las Vegas have gotten kind of stuck with what they end up having," Curtis said.

D. Taylor, secretary-treasurer of the Culinary Union Local 226, sees that situation differently. He said cocktail servers at unionized properties tend to have better job security because those properties keep servers longer. He said cocktail servers at those places are able to keep their positions longer based on their ability to do the job.

He stopped short of saying nonunion gaming properties discriminate based on age, but he said a look at the cocktail servers at nonunion properties shows they tend to be younger at those properties.

Rob Stillwell, a spokesman for Boyd Gaming Corp., which operates both union and nonunion casinos, said that his company doesn't discriminate based on age.

"We don't hire according to age," Stillwell said.

Gary Thompson, a spokesman for Harrah's Entertainment Inc., stressed that a good attitude outweighs the beauty of the company's cocktail servers.

"We're a service-oriented business," Thompson said. "A smile is more important than somebody's waistline or anything else."

Taylor said he hasn't heard of weight requirements being implemented at Las Vegas casinos. He said the unionized gaming companies usually devise their appearance standards with the input of the union.

"Any rules set forth here have to be considered reasonable," Taylor said. "Most of the time they're done with consultations with the appropriate workers. They can implement whatever they want but if it's not reasonable then obviously we have had disagreements in the past. Generally they have worked out."

One former locals casino cocktail waitress who is still looking for another casino job serving drinks said she feels she was fired because she failed to lose weight after giving birth.

She was told she needed to be able to fit into her old uniform when she returned from maternity leave in November. She worked until the beginning of this month, when she was fired for what she said was a trumped-up customer complaint.

"I was a good worker and everybody liked me," said the woman, who spoke on condition of anonymity. She said she believes casino bosses should evaluate cocktail servers on their customer-service skills, not on their looks.

Although appearance standards ruffle some feathers, courts have upheld companies' rights to enforce them. That could mean a Borgata job applicant who sued the company will face an upward battle in trying to win the case. The company rejected a grievance filed by leaders of UNITE HERE Local 54 in Atlantic City against the policy and the union has vowed to take the issue into arbitration.

Von Heinz, an employer's lawyer at Lewis and Roca's Las Vegas office, said companies have a legal right to implement appearance standards.

"Nevada is an at-will employment state, meaning that an employer may hire and fire for any reason, so long as the reason is not violative of state or federal law," Heinz said in an e-mailed response. "The only weight-related exception is for the morbidly obese, for whom the employer must observe the obligations of the Americans with Disabilities Act -- the ADA."

Harrah's Entertainment Inc. triumphed in a sex discrimination lawsuit a bartender at Harrah's Reno filed against the company over its appearance standard that required women to wear make up. A panel of three 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals judges ruled in December that the company could impose an appearance standard for its employees. The plaintiff, Darlene Jespersen, plans to push for the case to be heard by the full panel of judges.

Thompson said the company won the litigation fairly.

"It's because we had case law on our side," Thompson said. "The courts, federal and state have consistently upheld the employers right to impose certain appearance standards on employees, particularly those working with the public. We think we have a common sense approach to this."

Thompson said his company's appearance policies apply to all of the company's employees.

"Our appearance standards are very simple," Thompson said. "You have to be clean and well-groomed. You can't have tattoos that are visible and that's basically it. We have no weight requirements, no age requirements. Women have to wear a modest amount of makeup."

George Maloof, owner of the Palms, said appearance standards at his casino apply to all workers. However, he said it's not just appearance standards that are important.

"We think it's more than people being attractive," Maloof said. "You want people to be presentable and look their best. It's also their attitude, friendliness (and) cleanliness of the place. It's the whole package. The success of the place is measured by the people that work there and how they take care of their guests."

Stillwell said the appearance and costuming of cocktail servers play into the theme of each property. He also said good customer service is also a requirement.

"Personality is just as important," Stillwell said. "It's really your employees that are your biggest part of customer service. You can always have fancy places, but if there are people there that don't carry that same feel for the customer then it's lost."

Lia Tjeder, 26, a cocktail server at the Suncoast since it opened more than four years ago, agreed with Stillwell's assessment.

"Definitely appearance is a big part, but it's mostly customer service," Tjeder said. "Personality is maybe 80 percent of the job. You have to know how to deal with different personalities."

Tjeder said she was happy in her job and expects to keep it for a long time.

"I'm going to stay here," she said. "If it isn't broke, why fix it?"

Suncoast cocktail server Katrina Severin, 25, said she sees her role as keeping customers happy.

"You get to get this rapport with the customer," Severin said. "The same customers come in and they keep coming back because they like us."

Casinos: Looks Just One Aspect of Standards for Servers is republished from