PHOTO/DENNIS MYERS A Reno maintenance worker cleans a casino keno area while customers gamble.

The national gambling lobby is proselytizing among presidential candidates and voters the notion that casino jobs are a route to the middle class.

In a press release, the American Gaming Association said that it “is inviting presidential candidates to demonstrate support for the industry that provides livelihoods for the very voters from whom they seek support.”

Earlier this year the AGA released a document that argued casino careers provide “hundreds of thousands of high-quality jobs to workers from diverse backgrounds with wide-ranging levels of job experience and areas of expertise. With salaries comparable to—or above—the national average and organizations dedicated to growing employee talents and responsibilities, the gaming industry serves as a gateway to the middle class.”

However, the document, produced by Oxford Economics, wasn’t really a study and didn’t provide data that made a case for casino jobs taking workers into the middle class. Rather, it mainly argued that they do, as with this text:

“For many U.S. workers, gaming offers an opportunity to earn above the U.S. average annual salary. Middle-class gaming jobs include: Frontline casino employees, including cage workers and dealers, who make an average annual salary of more than $47,000, including tips; casino management and administration professionals, who earn an average of almost $54,000 annually; and gaming equipment manufacturing workers, who earn an average annual salary of nearly $75,000.”

But again, there was no data to show how common it was for workers to eventually move into those kinds of positions. It was public relations, not analysis. Nor are there independent studies that make that case.

The AGA provided a prepared statement from senior vice president Sara Rayme that made the point: “We’re proud to provide a path to the middle class for workers of all backgrounds and experiences, and we especially recognize the one-in-five gaming employees who are Latinos as we celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month and International Housekeepers Week. As candidates seek support from Latino voters, we invite them to meet with our diverse workforce and gain a better understanding of how the casino gaming industry works.”

Nothing statistical from the AGA suggested that housekeepers tend to move up into cage worker or casino management positions at any particular rate.

The organization’s news release said it “is educating candidates about the industry and informing gaming employees about the candidates as they visit key early-vote and battleground states—which also happen to be casino states. AGA is compiling a voter guide to share with gaming employees—voters—ahead of caucuses and elections.”

Its release was issued on Sept. 14, the same day that Republican presidential candidate Scott Walker chose Las Vegas to launch an attack on labor unions, including his announcement of plans to shut down the U.S. agency that oversees unfair labor practices and to put roadblocks in the way of union organizers.

Workplace conditions

Walker’s principal—though not only—target on that day was public workers’ unions, but it was a reminder that if casino jobs are a way into the middle class, they need a lot of help from unions. A 2000 University of Nevada, Las Vegas study indicated that wages of casino workers in Washoe County—where few casino workers are unionized—lagged far below those in Clark County, where unions are a significant force.

“If the experience of Washoe County’s [casino] industry is the norm for wages in the nonunion service sector occupations, then wages in an expanding sector of the economy will certainly be under or hover around commonly accepted measures of poverty for a growing proportion of workers,” UNLV economics professor Jeff Waddoups wrote.

Waddoups’ study, drawn from data gathered by the Nevada Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation, found a 24 percent difference between average Clark County casino worker wages and their Washoe counterparts. At the time of his study, 1.5 percent of Washoe casino workers were union members compared to 29 percent at Clark casinos. His data also found that non-union workers in Clark County benefited from the impact of unionism because non-union employers had to compete for workers.

“The union sets the standard, and it’s a powerful enough force in the labor market here that if the non-union properties want to get the same quantity or quality of labor, they pretty much have to meet the union standard,” Waddoups wrote.

Waddoups’ findings were supported by a later 2009 study, Gaming in Massachusetts/Can Casinos Bring ’Good Jobs’ to the Commonwealth? It was commissioned by the State of Massachusetts from the University of Massachusetts Boston. It found that “the better wages received by Las Vegas casino and hotel workers are due to the industry’s high unionization rate in Las Vegas.” editor Andrew Barbano notes that the Culinary Union “has trumpeted for years that a hotel maid getting union wages [in Las Vegas] can afford a house.”

Last year, the Bureau of Labor Statistics found the annual mean wage for casino hotel employees—that includes those from top executives to refuse collectors—was $31,960. Within that average, chief executives clock in at $171,630. The lowest paid gambling employee, whose pay may well be supplemented by tips, is the casino dealer at $19,160. The lowest paid non-gambling employees are manicurists and pedicurists at $19,540.

Working conditions in casinos can vary from state to state, and those can affect whether workers can improve their economic lots. In the Massachusetts study, 2007 legislation to make gambling legal was praised on these grounds: “The provisions for worker supports, including child care, mentoring, and training programs are positive policy steps that promote an approach to workforce development that balances an agenda of business for a surplus of trained and ready workers with an agenda for an engaged citizenry working in jobs that support healthy communities. These provisions of the 2007 proposed legislation should be protected and even enhanced in order for the introduction of gaming to improve the lives of all our citizens and benefit those without advanced education.”

Moreover, the toxic working conditions in Nevada casinos, which permit smoking and thus give workers shift-long exposure, can generate health care costs, which are the single largest cause of personal bankruptcies in the United States.

Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely...