Casino workers, businesses struggle with layoff news

Scott Santos had worked for Mohegan Sun since 1997, one year after it opened. Despite the casino's economic woes, there were no signs that Santos might lose his job.

"We were led to believe that things were getting better," said Santos, of Norwich. "Slots and other revenues were still down when compared to other years, but the last few months they were creeping up. We were blindsided."

Shortly after reporting to work at 4:30 a.m. Tuesday, Santos, a dual rate pit boss, learned, along with a group of coworkers that he was being laid off.

"It's a difficult situation for everybody. I'm not happy about it and I'd rather have my job back, but at least it didn't happen a couple years ago," Santos said Tuesday evening, trying to remain positive.

Because of his long tenure with the casino he was eligible for a 26 week severance package, he said. He intends to use that time to re-evaluate his employment opportunities and skills.

But times will be even tougher since his ex-wife, a Ledyard resident, also lost her job at the dealer training school, Santos said. He and his former wife have an 11-year-old son.

"That's what makes it's hard. Trying to look at this from a child's perspective and explain to him what happened," Santos said.

At a restaurant near the casino, 783 Sports Bar and Grill, two casino employees, who declined to give their names or positions, said they had just finished their day shift, having walked in to see coworkers walking out with boxes or personal belongings.

"Dismal," the woman said. "It was a sad day."

"A lot of good people lost jobs," the man said. "The company waited until the last minute, as long as it could, to do it. I'm sure (President and CEO of Mohegan Sun) Mitchell Etess is not happy this had to happen. I'm sure he did all he could to avoid it."

Jodi Tang, who owns the year-old business in a newly constructed building just over the Norwich City line on Route 32, said a lot of her customers who are casino workers came in Tuesday. She's afraid it might have been the last time for many of them.

"I'm very worried. Yes. We're just barely surviving," she said. "We're surviving, but I don't know how long."

As casino workers and businesses struggled with the news, officials in Norwich and Montville promised to what they could to help the community.

Montville Mayor Joseph Jaskiewicz said he hopes to meet with Mohegan officials to find out who the affected residents are and reach out to the employees and families through the town's social services department.

"I know some people are very, very proud, but I want them to know what services we have to offer," the mayor said.

What the downsizing could mean to neighboring businesses along Route 32, such as groceries and other retail establishments is unknown, the mayor said.

"It really just shows how bad the economy really is. I know the Mohegan tribe has worked really hard not to do this," Jaskiewicz said, adding that he was surprised when Chuck Bunnell, the tribe's chief of staff, contacted him Monday about the announcement.

When the president of the Chinese and American Cultural Assistance Association, John Wong, heard the news, he went directly to the Mohegan Tribal office. He asked for Chief Lynn Malerba or Tribal Council members Mark Brown or Bruce "Two Dogs" Bozsum or for Bunnell, to try to stop the layoffs.

None were available, but Wong argued that the casino would be better off keeping the already trained employees through the tough times rather than having to hire and train new workers when the economy improves.

"I tried to put my two cents in," Wong said. "I tried to get them to not lay off people but to cut benefits and hours to keep good trained employees."

Bunnell's secretary told Wong that Bunnell would call him today.

Wong, a longtime Montville businessman, has worked with the region's two casinos over the years to help integrate the many Chinese employees into the region. At the association's next meeting - Monday at 6 p.m. at the Alliance Church in Norwich - Wong will ask the board to appoint a committee to contact the state Labor Department and work with any Chinese employees who have lost their jobs. The group could help provide translation services and help them try to find other jobs, he said.

Wong said as many as 90 percent of the Chinese workers in the casino hospitality jobs do not speak English.

"Our association really is concerned about these matters," Wong said.

The Norwich Human Services office is also bracing for the anticipated impact of the layoffs. The department already has experience from layoffs at Foxwoods Resort Casino nearly two years ago.

In that round of layoffs, Norwich officials learned that 129 laid-off Foxwoods employees lived in the city. Norwich received federal stimulus money through the U.S. Department of Labor to hire a social worker specifically for that situation. That program is ending, and the social worker has now been hired by the city Human Services office as a regular staff member.

Norwich Human Services Director Beverly Goulet said her office would help any Norwich resident and would bring in other partner agencies - TVCCA, United Community and Family Services and others - to help fill the gap for families in need.

"Our focus will be on trying to make sure they apply for any programs they qualify for," Goulet said. "We all know there's very little out there in employment."

Norwich Human Services just started its annual job training program, funded through a $51,000 federal community development block grant, and there are openings. The program includes training for certified nurses' aides, EMTs and patient care technicians and tuition assistance for registered nurse classes at Three Rivers Community College.

"We're trying to concentrate on medical fields, because that's where the jobs are," Social Work Supervisor Lee Ann Gomes said.

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