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Best of Liz Benston

Gaming Guru

Liz Benston

Union targets Tropicana

4 February 2008

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- The Culinary Union has raised the stakes in its contract dispute with the Tropicana, asking state regulators to investigate whether cuts in security staff led to an increase in crime at the casino.

In a series of allegations submitted to the State Gaming Control Board last month, the union has detailed what it says is evidence that deteriorating security conditions pose a safety threat to workers and the public and bring disrepute on the gaming industry.

Fresh from the Culinary's failure to deliver enough support to propel Illinois Sen. Barack Obama to victory in last month's Nevada Democratic caucus, the union is eager to demonstrate it remains a powerful force in the state. The union disclosed its complaints publicly this week. The Culinary and Tropicana owner Columbia Sussex return to the bargaining table Monday. The Tropicana is the only Strip casino whose workers are represented by the Culinary that has yet to agree to a contract.

Columbia Sussex said Thursday the union's charges are "off base" because they are based on police calls rather than actual crimes, which the company said have declined since it bought the property a year ago.

Company spokesman Hud Englehart accused the union of "gaming the system — in other words, making calls to police to run up the numbers so that they can roast the property on half-based data and innuendo."

Gaming regulators said the agency began an investigation of the company's business practices before receiving the Culinary's complaint and have found no violation of gaming laws. Under those laws, companies are required to provide a safe environment.

Gaming Control Board Chairman Dennis Neilander declined to comment specifically on the union's allegations but did say that the board is including them in its review, which continues. The board is also looking into Columbia Sussex's activities in New Jersey — where the company was recently stripped of its gaming license for violating state regulations.

Nevada law gives regulators broad authority to fine companies or remove licenses of operators who "bring disrepute" to the industry.

Culinary leader D. Taylor criticized the gaming board for what the union sees as a failure to act on the allegations, which it leveled Dec. 19.

The complaint claims Metro Police statistics show that calls requesting police presence at the Tropicana from Jan. 1 to Oct. 31, 2007, increased 37 percent over the same period the previous year, when the property was under different ownership.

By comparison, calls for police from three neighboring casinos — MGM Grand, New York-New York and Excalibur — increased an average of 10 percent.

The Culinary said the increase in calls from the Tropicana stems in part from cuts to the security force. The union said workers have complained about shrinking security staff, long delays in security response to incidents and a growing number of vehicle break-ins.

The union noted that New Jersey authorities imposed sanctions on the Tropicana in that state for violating minimum staffing requirements.

Columbia Sussex said the number of calls is not an accurate measure. A better gauge is the number of calls that led Metro to file incident reports, and that number fell by 237 last year compared with 2006, the company said.

A short-term bump in incidents occurred last year when the company cut the number of security guards staffing the outside of the property, spokesman Englehart said. But management reversed the situation by hiring back the security guards, and incidents declined, he said.

Overall, the property's security staff is smaller than under previous owners, down from 58 to 44, Englehart said. The Tropicana has 24 officers covering three shifts daily, with no one working 12-hour shifts, he said.

The union also alleged that prostitutes and pimps have a regular presence at the casino. A private investigator hired by the union provided regulators with videos and a log detailing his surveillance during 15 days in summer and fall. The videos were apparently made during early morning hours.

Columbia Sussex said its review of responses by Metro's vice unit shows that during daytime hours, instances of prostitution are less than at other properties in the area. The company is compiling information on responses during the graveyard shift, Englehart said.

On top of the allegations outlined in the Culinary's complaint, the union's Taylor said workers were told Monday not to cash their paychecks.

Widespread payroll problems were evident in November, when employees noticed shortages in their paychecks, Taylor said. After workers voiced concerns, corrections took several weeks, he said. Some employees are still owed money, he said.

Columbia Sussex accused the union of deceiving the public. When the company recently changed its payroll system, now handled at corporate headquarters in Kentucky, health care premiums for some employees were accidentally inflated, doubling the amount deducted from paychecks, Englehart said. The company immediately cut separate checks making up the difference and included them in the envelopes with the incorrect paychecks, he said.

At the company's Laughlin casinos, Columbia Sussex experienced an error in the payroll system in which some employees with direct deposit didn't see their money show up in their bank accounts right away, he said. The problem was corrected within hours, he said.

Payroll problems are regulated by state Labor Commissioner Michael Tanchek, who said he is aware of the allegations but has received no complaints from Tropicana workers.