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Buffet chefs AnD'rue Vought, left, and Pete Pesseti serve made-to-order omelets to customers at the High Mountain Buffet in the Coeur d'Alene Casino near Worley, Idaho. Tribal casinos are a growth industry in Idaho and Washington, employing more than 2,000 people in the Inland Northwest. 
 (Photos by Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Buffet chefs AnD'rue Vought, left, and Pete Pesseti serve made-to-order omelets to customers at the High Mountain Buffet in the Coeur d'Alene Casino near Worley, Idaho. Tribal casinos are a growth industry in Idaho and Washington, employing more than 2,000 people in the Inland Northwest. (Photos by Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

WORLEY, Idaho – Thirteen years ago, the Coeur d’Alene Tribe gambled on a modest bingo hall along a rural stretch of U.S. Highway 95. It was a 30-minute drive from Coeur d’Alene; 55 minutes from Spokane. Still the buses came, disgorging crowds of eager gamblers.

Today, the bingo hall is a distant memory. Multiple expansions have created the Coeur d’Alene Casino & Resort – a lodge-style complex of neon lights, Vegas-style machines and geometric Native American decor. More than 800 workers are needed to run the gaming operation, a hotel, restaurants, events center and golf course.

“It’s fabulous what we’ve done – this little tribe – in 13 years,” said Charlie Morris, director of the Coeur d’Alene Casino.

The casino’s growth parallels the rise of tribal gaming in the Inland Northwest. In less than a decade, Indian casinos have become one of the region’s largest employers. More than 2,000 people work at five casinos run by the Coeur d’Alene, Kootenai, Spokane and Kalispel tribes, and the numbers are growing.

In January, the Spokane Tribe of Indians broke ground on a $130 million casino-hotel-shopping complex west of Airway Heights. According to the tribe’s estimates, the phased development will eventually create 2,100 new jobs.

Nearby, the Kalispel Tribe employs 1,000 workers at its Northern Quest Casino in Airway Heights, a figure that has doubled since the casino’s opening five years ago. In Idaho, the Coeur d’Alenes are mulling a $30 million-plus expansion that would include a new hotel wing, RV park, outdoor arena and additional space for its bingo operations.

The proximity of the Spokane Tribe’s planned casino to the Kalispel’s Northern Quest Casino will create competition. But the Coeur d’Alene’s Morris said the region can support three large casinos, even if they draw on some of the same patrons.

It’ll be like Las Vegas, he predicted: If gamblers aren’t winning at one casino, they’ll pick up their chips and head to another.

“They’re our brothers, and they have a right to be there,” Morris said of the other tribes.

Most workers non-Native

In Indian Country, casinos are referred to as the new buffalo. Like the woolly beasts that once supported Indian tribes, casino profits are reviving tribal economies by pumping millions of dollars into government and social programs, including senior housing, Native language classes and college tuition for tribal youth.

“We’re breaking the cycle of poverty that has haunted the community for more than a century,” David Matheson, the Coeur d’Alene Casino’s chief executive officer, said in a recent presentation to employees.

In North Idaho, the casinos have also spurred job growth in rural areas, where steady paychecks can be as rare as endangered caribou sightings. Before the Coeur d’Alene’s built their bingo hall, 70 percent of the tribe’s adult members were unemployed. Now, “we like to say that any member of the tribe who wants a job can have one,” said Chief Allan, the tribe’s chairman.

Through hiring of non-Natives, the casinos’ prosperity spills over to other community members.

About three-quarters of the workers at Northern Quest Casino and the Spokane Tribe’s Chewelah Casino are not Native American. At the Coeur d’Alene Casino, about 60 percent of workers are non-Native.

“As you can see, there are far more jobs than Indians,” said Bob Bostwick, director of public relations for the Coeur d’Alene Casino.

Many of the jobs are in customer service, and start at the lower end of the pay scale. Housekeepers, food and beverage servers and valets, for instance, earn $5.15 to $8-plus per hour at various casinos. Some of those positions also include tips.

At Northern Quest, becoming a table-game dealer is one way that employees advance. The pay is $7.68 per, but dealers can double that in tips. The casinos also have marketing departments and HR staffs, and a variety of management and technical positions. Northern Quest, for example, has an on-call audio-visual staff that helps set up for concerts and other special events.

The region’s five casinos also tout their generous benefit packages, including health insurance and 401(K) plans, which are unusual for service workers in the tourism industry, and the potential for career advancement.

“If you want a job, the tribe is the best employer,” said Geri Hodgson, who lives 25 miles south of Worley in the Benewah Valley. Not much else, she said, is available on the reservation.

Hodgson started working for the Coeur d’Alene Casino eight years ago, as a graveyard shift clerk at the casino’s Chevron station. Being an enrolled member of North Dakota’s Turtle Mountain Chippewa Tribe helped her get a foot in the door, she said.

Hodgson now manages the Chevron’s staff of 11 employees. The casino paid for her supervisory training, and will reimburse her for taking computer classes.

“The benefits are terrific,” said Hodgson, who receives hundreds of dollars in annual Christmas bonuses each year. She expects to earn a 10-year anniversary pin at the casino and perhaps a 20-year pin as well.

Last week, one-third of the Coeur d’Alene Casino’s 750 full-time employees were recognized for five-year or 10-year anniversaries. During a traditional “honor dance,” each worker – from kitchen staff to top managers – shook the hands of every other person in the room.

That kind of tenure is rare in the hospitality industry, said Laura Stensgar-Mokry, the casino’s marketing director. “Those numbers are a good indication that this is a good place to work.”

Worker retention is critical to the casino’s success, said Morris, the Coeur d’Alene Casino’s director. Corporate America talks about “churn rates” – an expectation that service workers will leave the job after two or three years. “That’s how you keep wages low,” he said.

While that model might succeed in a large metropolitan area, it wouldn’t work in the limited labor pool around Worley, he said.

Differing laws

Working at a casino, however, is different from other jobs. Even housekeepers and dishwashers go though criminal background checks. Since large amounts of cash trade hands, some positions also require a review of the applicant’s credit report, said Morgan Jannot, Northern Quest’s compensation and benefit’s manager. Job offers are contingent on clearing up problems.

Since the tribes are sovereign nations, they’re also subject to different employment laws. Northern Quest, for instance, doesn’t have to pay Washington state’s minimum wage of $7.63 per hour, “though we do,” Jannot said. There’s some disagreement whether federal wage and hour laws apply to casinos and other tribal business enterprises since court rulings have gone both ways.

Tribes are also allowed to give Native Americans first shot at job openings through the federal Indian Preference Act.

In a pool of qualified candidates, for instance, Northern Quest would give hiring preference to an enrolled member of the Kalispel Tribe, then a tribal member’s spouse, then a Native American from another tribe. Other casinos have similar policies.

Cultural literacy is also a must. At the Coeur d’Alene Casino, al1 new employees take a cultural awareness class, so they can answer basic questions that guests might ask about the Coeur d’Alene Tribe and its history.

The casinos consider themselves “fluid for talent” for both Indians and non-Indians. Fast growth allows promising workers to advance quickly. “We’re still in our infancy,” Morris said.

In 2001, Jennifer Simmons was a recently divorced, single parent. She took a part-time job serving drinks at Northern Quest Casino while she studied communications at Eastern Washington University. The job paid minimum wage, but the tips were good.

“It was a life-saver,” Simmons said. “Every semester, I took my class schedule to my supervisors, and they worked out my hours around it.”

After she graduated, Simmons did a three-month internship in the casino’s marketing department. When a public relations job opened up, she was hired full-time. “I had three months under my belt, and they gave me a shot,” she said.

Jannot has a similar story. After being laid off from a human resources job at Telect, he took an $11.41-per-hour job as staffing specialist at Northern Quest. Six months later, he was promoted. He recently gave a presentation on worker retention at a gaming conference. Jannot said he doubts that he’d be getting those kinds of career opportunities at an older, more established company.

Tribal gaming allowed Yvette Lozeau to return to the Coeur d’Alene reservation. Initially, the 27-year-old member of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe expected her finance and marketing degree to take her to a larger area, perhaps Portland or Vancouver. After graduating from the University of Idaho, however, she was recruited by the Coeur d’Alene Casino.

Lozeau worked as the hotel’s night auditor, and later in marketing. Supervisors encouraged her to pursue an MBA. She was reimbursed for books and tuition – a benefit available to all Coeur d’Alene Casino employees who continue their education.

For a class project, Lozeau researched how to set up call centers. When the Coeur d’Alene Casino did away with its automated phone system, Lozeau was hired as the manager of a 13-person call center.

“Without that master’s degree, I wouldn’t have been able to move up to management,” she said.

Gaming, however, isn’t the end-all of tribal employment, said Allan, the Coeur d’Alene Tribe’s chairman. The tribal council has always considered gaming a vehicle for accomplishing longer term goals, including economic diversification and college educations for the tribe’s youth.

Like the buffalo, gaming is a finite resource, Allan said. Someday, it will probably go away, he said.

In the meantime, however, Allan wouldn’t mind if a few of the tribe’s younger members earned degrees in architecture or engineering.

“With all this building going on,” he said, “we’re spending a lot on …fees.”

 

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