Oklahoma's gaming fight is about people’s lives

Meredith Good Voice (Muscogee (Creek) Citizen) has recently made the transition from a class III gaming dealer to social worker but she still worries how the legal battle between Oklahoma's Governor and the gaming tribes of Oklahoma could affect her former colleagues. (Photo by Angel Ellis)

Angel Ellis

Nearly 2,000 people work across the state as casino dealers

Meredith Good Voice was a card dealer for about a dozen years. She no longer works at a casino but she is worried about her former colleagues.

"Dealers make less than minimum wage and depend on tips to support their families," Good Voice said. "To work any other job, and have to rely on a paycheck every two weeks is worrisome."

A lot of Oklahomans worry that the dispute between the governor of Oklahoma and the tribes could put these jobs at risk.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor and Statistics, about 1,900 Oklahomans earn their living as Class III gaming dealers. Oklahoma’s gaming tribes recently sued the state to enforce existing gaming compacts. Gov. Kevin Stitt maintains that the compacts expired Jan. 1st.

Under the current compacts, tribes are expected to pay the state an exclusivity fee, ranging from four to 10 percent. Those fees are due Jan. 20.

There are more than 130 casinos in Oklahoma after voters approved a gambling expansion in 2004.

Good Voice, Muscogee (Creek) Nation, worked for 13 years at the Hard Rock Casino, located in Tulsa, Oklahoma. For 11 years of that time, she worked as a dealer. The Cherokee Nation owns the Hard Rock Casino.

Confetti flies during the grand opening of the Hard Rock Casino and Hotel in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on August 3, 2009. On Monday, November 17, 2014, at Hard Rock Casino in Tulsa, the Cherokee Nation and neighboring tribes celebrated the 10 year anniversary of the passage of Class III tribal-state gaming compacts.

"All the table games, including craps and roulette, are considered class III gaming," Good Voice said.

She said that the process of becoming a dealer requires a significant investment in time and training as a career. "There's a lot of training we've gone through to learn each game," Good Voice said. "It would be a drastic change to work any other job besides dealing."

The Muscogee (Creek) Nation's accredited College of the Muscogee Nation even offers a Gaming Associates of Applied Science.

Good Voice said that apart from the training and duties, table games dealers would have a hard time adjusting to the financial aspects that come with changing jobs should anything happen to Class III gaming in Oklahoma.

There are only so many jobs available working in the resorts, adds Good Voice's friend Aaron Hair, Cherokee Nation.

"At the Hard Rock, we have something like table games 200 employees," Hair said. "Some folks would be able to transfer, but not everyone."

Hair has worked in gaming for 25 years and has seen a struggle between the state and gaming before.

"When we first got table games, back in 2003 or 2004, when we didn't have a compact with the state, we got shut down," Hair said.

Back then many of Hair’s colleagues had no choice but to leave Oklahoma to make a living.

"Table game dealers ended up leaving for places like Arizona or Florida,” he said.

Working as a dealer has been a good job for Hair. "I bought a house three years ago," he said. "I don't know what I would do if we had to go into other positions where I didn't have the opportunity to make as much.”

Hair said he felt like the tribes invested in gaming so that people like him, both tribal citizens and Oklahomans, could have careers and do well for themselves.

Now the divide between the state and tribes means an uncertain future.

"Would I try to move up into management," Hair said. "Do I try to go back to school?"

"It's got people thinking about their lives." 

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