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Rod Smith

What Price to Serve in War?

29 June 2005

Gaming industry policies for paying Reservists serving in the war in the Middle East run the gamut from full compensation on top of active-duty pay to simply preserving their positions during extended absences, a survey of local companies shows.

Federal law requires companies to return workers to the same or comparable positions they left once they return from active duty. Federal law also requires companies to preserve health, vision and dental benefits for 30 days while offering employees the right to continue paying their own health insurance premiums for an additional 18 months under the Consolidated Omnibus Reconciliation Act, or COBRA.

MGM Mirage, the world's second-largest gaming company, offers local citizen-soldiers the best benefits. Its policy provides active-duty employees their full pay plus their normal share of declared tips. The company's policy also preserves health and 401(k) plan benefits for workers and their dependents.

The gaming company recently was named one of the top 25 U.S. companies for its support of military personnel by G.I. Jobs, a national monthly magazine that assists military members and veterans.

"We think it's an appropriate thing to do for the people who work for us and have been called to sacrifice," MGM Mirage Chairman Terry Lanni said.

MGM Mirage's vice president of benefits, Donna Trusler, said company policy is aimed at helping employees and their dependents maintain the lives they led before the employee was called up.

"We don't want them to have to worry while they're serving their country and know their families are being taken care of," she said.

Trusler said returning employees particularly appreciate the compensation policy and often come back with stories of how it lifted their spirits.

"When they were first sent, we had one young worker, Ken Duffy, who's a security officer at MGM Grand, whose wife said he sent back pictures of himself jumping from foxhole to foxhole showing other MGM employees the letter from Mr. Lanni because it was going to take care of his family," she said. "We feel very strongly about our employees who are defending our country. We wanted to show our support and appreciation."

Duffy, who returned from Iraq two years ago, said the company's support program is "awesome" and the kind that active duty men and women hear little about.

"It made me feel real good. I knew my family was taken care of back here," he said. "And when I got back, I felt good about coming back to work for a company that likes me and supports me. I didn't expect it, but they did it because they support us."

So far, 80 MGM Mirage employees have been called to active duty since hostilities broke out two years ago, with 31 now deployed.

University of Nevada, Las Vegas professor Bill Thompson, who specializes in gaming studies, said few if any other major companies nationally have ever been as generous in supporting military personnel as MGM Mirage.

Thompson said other gaming companies should adopt MGM Mirage's policies.

"Las Vegas could establish itself as one of the top jurisdictions in the nation. I've certainly never heard of any other gaming company going this far," he said.

Harrah's offers the difference between the pay workers on active duty since March 19 would have received and their military compensation. It also adheres to minimum federal requirements for benefits, as do other gaming companies.

Harrah's spokesman David Strow said the company adopted its policy so workers would not lose income as a result of military service.

"The more companies that adopt policies like ours and MGM Mirage's, the better. This is about taking care of employees who are making sacrifices on behalf of our country," he said.

Harrah's, the world's largest gaming company, has had 144 employees called up since hostilities began.

Boyd Gaming Corp. spokesman Rob Stillwell said that in addition to adhering to federal requirements, his company pays full benefits for 60 days rather than 30 days and offers COBRA for 24 months rather than 18.

"We've long been known for our benefits as a company whether you're in the military or not. With respect to active duty (military), we want to support them, and this is a definite step in that direction," he said.

Lori Nelson, director of corporate communications at Station Casinos, said her company adheres to the minimum federal requirements, although few of its employees have been called to duty.

Of those who have, she said, Station Casinos has thrown a celebration upon their return.

Arte Nathan, vice president for human resources at Wynn Resorts Ltd., Joe Cole, vice president of communications for Aztar Corp., and Ron Reese, a spokesman for The Venetian, said that their companies' policies adhere to the minimum federal guidelines.