Group Criticizes Casinos' Policies

Times Staff Writer

A coalition of low-income gambling employees, union leaders and clergy protested the lack of affordable family insurance Tuesday at the Spa and Agua Caliente Casinos, run by one of the state's most prosperous Indian tribes.

The event was part of an ongoing effort by the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union to organize workers at the two Coachella Valley casinos operated by the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians.

Flanked by nine casino employees at a news conference at Our Lady of Soledad Church in Palm Springs, Father Miguel Ceja said, "I am deeply concerned about worsening poverty in the Coachella Valley caused by the growth of casinos which do not provide adequate wages or health-care benefits to their workers."

Turning to the workers, Ceja said, "We know you are risking your jobs just by being here today. You are our heroes."

Tuesday's event followed the release this week of a UCLA survey showing that nearly half of the children of the people who work the floor of the casinos are enrolled in federal MediCal or state Healthy Families programs.

The report contends that the tribe saves about $1 million a year by offering family insurance plans that many of its lower-income employees said they cannot afford.

Instead, the casino urges them to enroll in government insurance programs, according to the survey.

The casino's family insurance plan costs workers $2,880, which compares with the California average for such a plan of $1,806, according to the report.

At the news conference, union officials distributed copies of a memo titled "Healthy Family Cost Savings Comparison," which allegedly has been given to casino employees by their managers at health-care meetings.

An employee with one child would have to pay $60 for medical, dental and vision insurance under the casino's plan, the memo said. The cost for similar coverage under the state Healthy Families program would be $5.

Agua Caliente Chairman Richard Milanovich declined to comment.

A tribal administrative employee who would not give her name said, "The tribal council is discussing the issue. When they're ready, they'll make a statement."

In an earlier interview, the tribe's financial officer denied allegations that casino managers deliberately steer employees into government programs.

But he acknowledged that Healthy Families representatives have been invited to the casinos to provide workers with information about the plan.

Union leaders questioned that practice, given that its own studies indicate that the Agua Caliente's slot machines generate about $185 million a year.

Martha Flores said she has worked in the Spa laundry room for four years and earns $8.50 an hour.

"My husband is disabled, and I can't afford to put him on the casino insurance plan," she said.

"My two daughters also work at the Spa," she said. "Their two children are on MediCal."

Spa cocktail server Leslie Stolar, 42, said the $6.75 an hour and tips she earns after two years on the job is "ridiculous."

"My two kids are on MediCal," she said. "I originally enrolled them in the Healthy Families program, but my income was so low I had to get them into MediCal."

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