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Jennifer Robison

The Strip: Tip policy inspires protest

27 November 2006

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- Chris Heath came to Las Vegas for Thanksgiving.

She stayed here for a protest.

Heath was standing in front of Wynn Las Vegas on Friday afternoon, rallying against a policy that redistributes a portion of casino dealers' tips to their supervisors.

Heath's brother is a dealer inside the hotel-casino, and she wanted to support him, she said.

"It's wrong for this big, rich man to steal money from people who live paycheck to paycheck," said Heath, a San Antonio accountant who added that her brother's income has dropped 20 percent since the tip-splitting regulation took effect Sept. 1. "If he thinks his front-line managers don't make enough money, he should give them a raise, and not do it on the backs of their subordinates."

Heath was one of dozens of sign-carrying protesters marching outside Wynn Las Vegas in a demonstration organized by the International Union of Gaming Employees, an inactive union that doesn't officially represent dealers at the resort or anywhere else on the Strip.

Jack Lipsman, vice president of the union and a retired dealer with 24 years' experience, said the group initiated the protest because the union wanted to stand up for the rights of dealers at the hotel. He also said the policy could hurt the gaming industry if it's allowed to stand.

"For the first time in 75 years of gaming, (Steve Wynn) is taking dealers' tip money and using it to pay salaries," Lipsman said. "I personally admire (Wynn) because I think he's a brilliant person, but he's out of his league now. He's messing with things that shouldn't be messed with."

Wynn Resorts Ltd. officials established the tip-sharing policy to equalize incomes between dealers and their supervisors. Before the change, dealers at Wynn Las Vegas pulled in an average of $100,000 a year in wages and tips, while their managers typically took home a salary alone of about $60,000 annually.

Executives at the hotel-casino said when they announced the new rule in August that a large base of high-end patrons who tipped generously on big bets exacerbated the pay disparity between dealers and their bosses. The imbalance caused a shortage of workers willing to take on supervisory positions, they said.

The policy, which also gave managers an increase in base wages, realigned dealers to an average of $90,000 a year, while supervisors began making $95,000 a year.

Before the plan went into effect, dealers flooded the Review-Journal and online message boards with letters and statements condemning the policy. One dealer told the Review-Journal he could lose up to $30,000 annually in gratuities.

Now, concerned Wynn dealers are getting support from friends and relatives, retired dealers and dealers from competing resorts.

Bill Wolf, a dealer at Bellagio, said he attended the protest to show solidarity with his fellow dealers.

"Where does it stop? In every department at a casino, employees make more than the managers," Wolf said. "Do we give tip money to pit clerks because they do markers? Do we give them to security because they bring fills? I'm absolutely worried (about losing tips). They'd all do it if they can get away with it here. Why wouldn't they?"

Harmony Hooper, also a Bellagio dealer, said she marched in the demonstration because the new rules at Wynn Las Vegas were unfair to her peers.

"I just don't understand it," Hooper said. "People tip because they like you. Never has someone reached into my toke jar and taken what they wanted."

About 40 protesters with signs were pacing the front of the property 15 minutes before the rally's scheduled start at 2 p.m. By 2:30, roughly 75 demonstrators were on the scene, carrying signs, waving American flags and handing out informational fliers to passing tourists. The marchers garnered occasional horn honks and shouts from passing drivers.

The scene made an impression on at least one tourist.

George Carter, a visitor from Southern California, stopped to chat with demonstrators.

"I'm sorry they have to protest," Carter said. "No one gives money (tips) thinking it's going to management. It's certainly changing my opinion of the company."

Carter said he doesn't gamble much, and he isn't a regular patron of Wynn Las Vegas. But he labeled the policy "dishonest."

"It's despicable somebody who could build that (hotel) would pick the pockets of employees when he doesn't have to," Carter said as he motioned toward the hotel-casino. "He just needs to stop this."

Lipsman speculated that Wynn changed the resort's tip rules to innovate new practices within the gaming sector.

"But it's backfired because it hurts other people," Lipsman said, adding that he believes allotting one worker's tips to another employee is illegal under Nevada Revised Statutes 608.160.

Lipsman said his union is inactive as an organizing group. He said the union didn't intend to try organizing dealers at Wynn Las Vegas.

Friday's protest wasn't the first action taken against the tip-dividing move.

Dealers petitioned Nevada Labor Commissioner Michael Tanchek to issue a ruling on the legality of the policy.

Tanchek announced on Sept. 13 that the practice is legal under Nevada Revised Statutes 608.160 as long as gratuities are shared with Wynn Las Vegas employees who handle customer service.