Economics Special: Perception, proof and progress: Casinos and Indian employment

There are few reasonable opposing arguments in Indian country for the economic renaissance that has resulted from the gaming boom in the last decade. Communities have re-acquired their ancestral homelands, provided services to their membership like housing and health care that would not have been thought of before the advent of Indian-owned bingo halls and casino. Critics and dissidents have continued their assault on these enterprises and have contributed to negative perception of Indian gaming despite the extent to which the industry is regulated.

One of shots most frequently fired at gaming tribes has been their failure to offer even their own citizens jobs. There is an element of truth to this allegation, but there is also significant misinformation and exaggeration. Many gambling operations will admit there has been and continues to be recruitment issues concerning attracting qualified tribal candidates while others are hesitant about discussing the issue on the record.

Tribes that will discuss the issue have said there are simply not enough qualified and experienced candidates from Indian country for many casino jobs and support from Indian hiring preference under Title VII of the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1991 has failed. By statute when two or more qualified applicants that are able to perform the duties of an opening apply preference is given to enrolled members of the hiring tribe then members of other tribes and finally all other applicants.

In short, the formulae only works if candidates are qualified and is additionally complicated by the fact tribal participation in the gaming industry is still relatively new and a great deal of tribal talent is still in development.

Gaming tribes in all areas of the country have recognized these issues and are doing everything they can to increase tribal member employment.

The Sac & Fox Casino in Powhatan, Kan., for example, has a total of 346 employees. Of that number four are Sac & Fox tribal members, 25 are citizens of other tribes, while six tribal members hold management positions, including the acting general manager of casino operations.

Sac & Fox Casino Human Resources Director Katie Irwin told Indian Country Today the number of tribal members seeking employment at the casino is disappointing and initially could not offer an explanation for the low numbers.

Irwin said the tribe is responding by pursuing an initiative to raise the number of tribal employees at the casino by making them more aware of current openings.

"Typically, there are issues with the level of education, but we are making gains," said Irwin. "There are also problems with experience because of our location."

Other tribal gaming operations and their communities have gone a step farther in creating casino jobs for their members by implementing legislation. The Gila River Casino near Phoenix, Ariz. is governed by a tribal ordinance that requires 65 percent of the casino's 2,000-person staff must be tribal members. Gila River Director of Public Relations Gary Bohnee said the success of the casino has expanded the types and number of jobs available to the community's approximately 18,000 members. Hundreds of new jobs have been created at Gila River's new 500-room resort hotel and golf courses and an estimated half of those positions have been filled by tribal members, according to Bohnee. Tribal members also hold key management positions, including assistant CEO, marketing director and IT director.

Bohnee estimated that between 25 and 50 percent of all managers at Gila River enterprises are tribal members.

"It is harder to find individuals for management positions," said Bohnee. "It is easier to place them (tribal members) in other positions because of their level of education and experience.

"Any community member that wants a job can have one."

Gila River has also taken steps to increase the pool of qualified management candidates by instituting a mentoring program for its members, said Bohnee. He added that new compacts and the passage of Proposition 202 will help create even more jobs at Gila River due to a 1,000-unit increase in the number of gaming machines and other new games now available like blackjack.

Similar success by the Oneida Indian Nation of New York, operators of the highly profitable Turning Stone Casino Resort in Verona, N.Y., has created 3,300 jobs - 2,700 at the resort alone - with approximately 10 percent of those jobs held by Oneidas. Oneida Nation spokesman Mark Emery said the nation has a 100 percent employment policy for its citizens allowing any nation member to get a job if they are qualified. He said the Oneida Nation has addressed increasing the qualifications and casino jobs for its membership with an aggressive education support program that includes tuition assistance and stipends if needed.

"There are now about 300 Oneidas currently engaged in some form of higher education and another 200 have already been through," Emery said of the Oneida effort to support its next generation of leadership and managers. "There is also a program in casino management at (State University of New York) Morrisville several nation members have attended."

Emery said the $300 million expansion to the Turning Stone resort will create an additional 1,000 permanent jobs and 500 construction jobs increasing tribal member employment opportunities even further.

Still other gaming tribes are working to correct the perception they are not hiring their own people with significant success. A case in point is the Coeur d'Alene Casino Resort Hotel in Worley, Idaho. Of approximate ly 700 casino employees, 58 percent are nation members with an even higher concentration in the management ranks. Coeur d'Alene spokesman and former tribal chairman Dave Matheson said 71 percent of the executive management team and 90 percent of department heads are either Coeur d'Alene or American Indian from other communities.

Their management staff training plan draws from their own population and when candidates move into management openings other tribal members are cycled into the program.

"I truly believe in our people and think they are very talented," said Matheson.