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Mashantucket - Cheryl Haase has been serving cocktails for more than two decades, and the 52-year-old waitress says she has a list of foot ailments to prove it.
The miles she has walked carrying trays of drinks through the Foxwoods Resort Casino in high heels have sent her over the years to chiropractors and podiatrists for injections to treat inflammation.
Now she and a union representing her fellow cocktail waitresses at the country's largest casino are fighting for the servers to wear shoes of their own choosing. Many have worked at the casino since it opened in 1992, and some see proposed new requirements as a bid to push them out and make way for younger workers.
"Most of us girls have been here for 20 years, 15 years. This job has really done a number on our feet and they know it," Haase said.
The shoe dispute has bogged down talks for the waitresses' first union contract at Foxwoods, a massive property in southeastern Connecticut that is owned and operated by the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation. It is among a few key issues set for arbitration between the casino and Local 371 of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, which represents about 365 Foxwoods workers including 200 beverage servers.
The casino yielded on a recently imposed requirement for 2-inch heels, but it is insisting that servers wear polishable black shoes, subject to approval by management, according to union representative Keri Hoehne and members. Servers could be exempted with a doctor's note for up to a year, but would then have to resign or take another position.
A Foxwoods spokeswoman, Dale Wolbrink, said she would not comment on labor negotiations that she said should be considered private.
From Las Vegas to Atlantic City, footwear for cocktail waitresses has been a spiky issue as image-conscious casinos encourage dress codes to help attract customers. A coalition that formed more than a decade ago in Nevada challenged casinos with rallies against high heels. In New Jersey in the 1990s, female servers sued the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa, which had waitresses it dubbed "Borgata Babes" wear high heels and cleavage-baring bustiers. The lawsuit was settled in 2008.
A Connecticut podiatrist, Dr. Eric Levine of Norwich, said he frequently treats casino waitresses who wear high heels. He said many who come to him with painful conditions return to work with a recommendation to not wear high heels for medical reasons, but some waitresses confess they won't give them up easily.
"Several have told me they're not going to stop wearing them. "The higher the heel, the larger the tip,"' he said.
At Foxwoods, some cocktail waitresses sought out the union around 2009, partly because of their concerns that older workers were vulnerable. One turning point was the arrival of consultants who discussed with cocktail waitresses the high-heeled look that the casino was seeking, bartender Janet Cochran said.
"That's why we got the union in here. They were looking at the older people," Cochran said.
The UFCW is the second union to organize at Foxwoods after the United Auto Workers, which reached agreement on a contract for casino dealers in 2010. The casino, which employs about 8,000 people, has been facing a steady decline in revenue and is also negotiating a deal to try to reduce its debt of $2.27 billion.
Contract talks for the UFCW have stretched on for two years. For the cocktail waitresses, concerns that the casino appeared to be tightening its shoe requirements top a list of issues up for arbitration. The hearings set for September are also expected to address differences over wages, health insurance rates and preferential treatment for tribal employees.
Haase, who has 13-year-old triplets, said she makes only half of what she used to as the gaming slump has cut into her tip money, but she does not want to give up on a job where she enjoys seniority.
Haase said she wears black clogs after a doctor urged her to ditch narrow-toed shoes preferred by the casino, but she worries she would have to switch back if the casino has its way.
"After 20 years of being there," she said, "I can't wear a shoe that's angled like that because my foot is too wide for it."