Federal rules: Tribal casinos are ineligible for payroll help

"Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation President Bernadine Burnette closed the We-Ko-Pa Casino Resort last month. Casinos with less than 500 employees are making the case to be included in the government's payroll protection plan. (Photo by Patty Talahongva, Indian Country Today)

Mark Trahant

‘Congress said ‘any’ small business can get paycheck protection for its people, the SBA has no right to say anything less to small tribal gaming businesses’ * Updated 12 MST

President Donald Trump has been clear about the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

“The Treasury Department and Small Business Administration announced further details on the Paycheck Protection Program, which was made possible by the 2-trillion-dollar relief bill I signed into law last week,” he said at a White House briefing. “Nearly $350 billion in loans will soon be available through lending partners to help small businesses meet payroll and other expenses for up to two months. These loans will be forgiven as long as businesses keep paying their workers. This includes sole proprietors and independent contractors.”

However there remains uncertainty about whether tribal enterprises -- namely casinos that employ less than 500 people -- will even qualify for the program under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act (or CARES act).

Here is how the program is supposed to work: Any small business with less than 500 employees can go to their bank and get a loan. Once that loan is secured, and, if the business continues paying its employees, then the loan is forgiven. 

The implications in Indian Country are significant, protecting critical jobs and limiting financial losses.

(More information: Indian Country's COVID-19 syllabus -- Data, story summaries, lists of closures, resources)

However the Small Business Administration posted rules last week that essentially eliminates gambling enterprises. The regulations say: “If the purpose of the business is gambling, such as a pari-mutual betting racetrack or a gambling casino, the business is not eligible, regardless of the percentage of gross revenue derived from gambling.”

"We have been fighting for all of our nations during this unprecedented public health crisis," said Chairman Ernie Stevens from the National Indian Gaming Association. "We fought for the $8 Billion set-aside for all Indian tribes, and inclusion of tribal governments along with with state and local governments. We worked to support coverage for all of our gaming operations, large and small, and we cannot except unequal treatment from the SBA. Our small tribal gaming operators must be eligible for the Paycheck Protection Program. We need these jobs, our people need their paychecks."

 "Like all American workers, our small tribal gaming employees need help to stay home, stop the coronavirus, and keep their families safe and fed at home," said Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate Chairman Donovan White. "Congress meant to cover any small business, including small tribal gaming operators. We want to thank our Senators and Congressmen for weighing in with Treasury to straighten out SBA."

“Congress said ‘any’ small business can get paycheck protection for its people, the SBA has no right to say anything less to small tribal gaming businesses,” said Mark Van Norman, former director, of the Justice Department’s Office of Tribal Justice.

“Congress enacted the ‘Paycheck’ Protection Program, and this SBA Program should be available to every type of business. It’s not about employment matters, or funding for equipment, but about getting paychecks to all employees during this crisis. It’s about keeping families safe, regardless of the type of business they are employed,” said Kevin J. Allis, Forest County Potawatomi Community, chief executive officer of the National Congress of American Indians.

Congressional negotiators are meeting with White House officials this week in order to get a clarification on the rules.

U.S. Sen. Mike Rounds, a Republican from South Dakota, said "leaving these types of small businesses out of important federal recovery efforts would prove to be crippling for South Dakota.”

Rep. Ben Ray Lujan, D-New Mexico, said the “Payroll Protection Program is especially important in remote rural areas of the country, including rural Arizona, New Mexico, Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota, Kansas, Nebraska, Louisiana, Idaho, Oregon, Washington, and California, among others, where Indian Tribes operate gaming facilities mainly to provide employment in impoverished reservation areas.”

Lujan said these jobs “provide a livelihood for hundreds of families where unemployment would otherwise reach above 50 to 75 percent. In addition, Tribal businesses, including gaming facilities, create a critical revenue stream for vital Tribal government services, including education, law enforcement, senior citizen services, sanitation, administration, and other community services. Without a sustained funding stream to prop up these critical measures, Tribal governments cannot safeguard the health and safety of their citizenry during the coronavirus crisis.”

The American Gaming Association said the SBA’s rules “relied on antiquated, discriminatory regulations that ignore today’s economic reality and the congressional intent behind the CARES Act, which states that any business concern shall be eligible to receive an SBA loan if they meet specific qualifications regarding their number of employees. Unless amended, these initial guidelines will irreparably harm one-third of the U.S. casino industry and the hundreds of thousands of Americans that rely on gaming businesses for their livelihood.”

The gaming association said it’s a much larger question than just casino jobs because so many other businesses rely on the industry, supporting some 350,000 jobs with some $52 billion in revenue in construction, manufacturing, retail and wholesale companies.

Last month the National Indian Gaming Association asked Congress to consider at least $18 billion for the industry. “Providing the means for tribal governments to continue paying all employees’ salaries and benefits will immensely help this country recover,” according to the letter addressed to Representatives Deb Haaland and Tom Cole of the House Native American Caucus. The association says the tribal gaming industry employs 700,000-plus people and generated $37 billion in 2017.

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Mark Trahant, Shoshone-Bannock, is editor of Indian Country Today. Follow him on Twitter - @TrahantReports

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Comments (5)
No. 1-5

Small tribal gaming should be included in the Paycheck Protection Program! I pray that this problem is settled in your favor.


Mar Pi
Mar Pi

So, are they discriminating based on race, business, or sovereignty? They know that casinos are the number one way that many reservations make money and they see the coronavirus as an opportunity to take that part of the contemporary culture and economic stability away to further dismember the people considering the fight for survivance. This action is political, not economic, as well as outright biased and inequitable.


What are they doing in Las Vegas.