Taxes Fund Health Care of Casino Staff Families

Times Staff Writer

Many of the children of low-paid casino workers employed by a prosperous and politically active Riverside County Indian tribe are insured in government-subsidized health-care programs because the tribe does not offer coverage the workers can afford, according to a UCLA survey.

Researchers surveyed 199 workers out of a group of 470 low-paid cooks, bartenders, janitors, and attendants at the Rancho Mirage casino of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians. Based on the survey, they concluded that about 46% of low-wage workers at the casino enrolled their children in Medi-Cal or the state Healthy Families program between October 2002 and January 2003.

The researchers gained access to the workers with help from a union seeking to organize workers at the casino.

"The number of casino employees' children in Healthy Families is greater than that of many towns in Riverside County," said Cal State San Bernardino economics professor Eric Nilsson, lead author of the survey prepared for UCLA's Institute of Industrial Relations.

The report provides a rare glimpse of the working conditions on the wealthy gambling reservation, where casino workers are not protected by U.S. labor law and the tribe is not obligated to pay local or state taxes. The study is believed to be the first of its kind to provide data on the jobs created within California's surging Indian gambling industry.

It comes at a time when the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians is negotiating with the state to increase the number of slot machines it may operate and as the hotel and restaurant workers union is trying to organize casino employees.

The tribe and others successfully pressured Assemblywoman Judy Chu (D-Monterey Park) to delay hearings on the health-care issue, saying they need more time to respond to the survey's findings.

A hearing initially set for today was postponed until April 1 after a tense meeting last week between Chu and eight Native Americans and four lobbyists representing several tribes, including the Agua Caliente. "I am very sympathetic to the issue of tribal sovereignty," Chu said. "But I also think it is important to have fair working conditions at these casinos."

In a letter to Chu, who heads the Assembly health and human services subcommittee, Brenda Soulliere, chairwoman of the California Nations Indian Gaming Assn., said she was "deeply disappointed" the hearing had not been postponed indefinitely, given that the tribes are in the midst of compact talks.

Insurance Unaffordable

While the tribe fully insures its casino workers and offers its own family insurance plans, most of the predominantly Latino and white employees cannot afford them, the survey found. The casino's family insurance plan costs its workers $2,880, which compares with the California average for such a plan of $1,806.

The average hourly wage of the workers is $8.93, excluding tips -- lower than the amount needed to sustain a modest standard of living, according to the California Budget Project, a nonprofit research agency. A single adult without children would have to earn $9.79 per hour to reach the level the agency recommends.

"The casino ... tells its workers to go to the government for health care," Nilsson said. "On the one hand, that's thoughtful. On the other, the casino has intentionally created conditions, such as high employee health-care premiums, that make sure that employees do not buy family health-care insurance through the casino.... The casinos leave state taxpayers to pick up the tab for the health-care needs of their employees," Nilsson said.

Agua Caliente financial officer Max Ross acknowledged that the tribe provides its employees with information about state health-care programs. However, he said, "we do not encourage them to get on those programs.... Some employees choose Healthy Families over our programs because they have to pay only $9 a month per kid," Ross said. "And why not? There's no plan in the country that can compete with that."

Healthy Families covers children between birth and age 19 whose families earn no more than 250% of the federal poverty level, or about $45,000 a year for a family of four.

Ross questioned the survey's estimate of the casino worker's average pay and the percentage of employees' children covered by state or federal insurance programs. He declined to provide the tribe's figures.

"We'll be reviewing the survey carefully," Ross said. "In the near future, we will comment on the accuracy of its numbers and conclusions."

The Indian gambling industry has experienced stunning growth over the past decade, pulling many tribes out of poverty and creating an estimated 35,000 jobs statewide. Few tribes, however, have fared as well as the Agua Caliente, the only one in California with two casinos. The tribe plans to expand its operations by building, among other things, a $400-million complex in downtown Palm Springs.

Nilsson figures the Rancho Mirage casino profits by as much as $1 million a year by not insuring employees' dependents. To insure every one of its workers, children and spouses would cost a few million dollars, Nilsson said.

Over the last five years, the Agua Caliente have donated more than $8 million to political campaigns. UCLA selected the Agua Caliente tribe to examine because it was the first to build a casino after the state Constitution was amended three years ago to allow Indian gaming, and it was granted access to the workers by the union.

The union contends casino workers deserve better wages, benefits and job security. Tribal authorities say their employees are treated generously.

"The dance has begun," said a hotel and restaurant labor organizer, Jack Gribbon. "The tribe wants more slot machines, and we want more workers' rights and better health-care benefits.

"If the gaming tribes such as the Agua Caliente were smart, they'd want to be able to say their enterprises provide a benefit to the state," Gribbon said. "But they can't say that when nearly half the children of their employees are getting health care from taxpayer-funded programs."

Only a few tribal casinos in California are unionized. One of them, the Cache Creek Indian Bingo & Casino west of Sacramento, which the Rumsey Band of Wintun Indians operates, recently agreed to a three-year contract that hikes wages 12% and provides affordable family health care.

In the Coachella Valley, meanwhile, union leaders have turned to state politicians and clergy for support, much to the tribe's dismay.

An interfaith group of 55 area religious leaders recently sent a letter to Agua Caliente Chairman Richard Milanovich urging him to allow his employees to organize.

Among those signing the letter was the Rev. Jim Tom of the United Methodist Church of Palm Springs.

"It seems poignant -- ironic maybe -- that Native American tribes who have struggled so hard to be treated with respect and dignity have become wealthy large-scale employers of people who have to work two or three jobs to make ends meet," Tom said.

Workplace Complaints

In interviews, a handful of Agua Caliente Casino workers offered a list of workplace complaints: frequent abrupt changes in workplace policy, arbitrary pay cuts, being forced to work while ill, meager raises, unaffordable health care.

Hector Lon, 41, who earns $8.25 an hour as a food server at the Agua Caliente Casino Spa, complained about his meager income.

"I'm among the highest-paid workers in the casino restaurant," Lon said. "We just want respect and decent wages."

One Agua Caliente Casino slot attendant, who asked that her name not be used for fear of retaliation, complained that she makes about $12 an hour after more than seven years on the job.

"I have two kids, both insured by Healthy Families," she added. "I learned about the program from a Healthy Families representative who came out to meet with us at the casino."

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