July 06, 2010 7:00 AM
by Staff & Wire Reports
Jennifer Yarchever was a former professional figure skater who had been working in sales. Sean Haleem was an administrator at an insurance company. Kevin Ryan had worked in casinos in Atlantic City and elsewhere for 30 years.
All three were also unemployed and looking for work when Pennsylvania casinos got the OK to start hiring employees for their newest attraction: table games.
"I cried," said Yarchever, 40, who always loved blackjack but never wanted to move away from her western Pennsylvania hometown for a casino job. "It's been my dream to be a blackjack dealer."
Casinos are hiring thousands of people in Pennsylvania with the addition of poker, craps and other table games, which open to the public Thursday at casinos in Pittsburgh, Erie and Washington, Pa. The jobs range from additional cocktail waitresses and dealers to pit cashiers and VIP hosts.
"In this day and age when jobs are at a premium and unemployment is at the high level that it is, these kinds of jobs are a welcome relief to Pennsylvania residents," Gaming Control Board Chairman Gregory Fajt said Wednesday. Pennsylvania's unemployment rate was 9.1 percent in May, below the national rate of 9.7 for the same period.
Casinos in Pennsylvania employ about 8,200 people, a number that will grow to about 12,600 by the end of the year, Fajt said. The new jobs created come with benefits including health insurance and a 401K, opportunities for advancement and the potential for good pay.
Dealers, for example, are typically paid a minimum hourly wage but make most of their money from tips. The best dealers at casinos in Las Vegas can make between $75,000 and $125,000 a year, said Jeff L. Voyles, a former dealer who teaches gaming management and other casino-related classes at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
Gambling opponents, however, called the creation of jobs "smoke and mirrors" and said the casinos won't be able to sustain them once people lose interest in gambling.
"Not only are the gamblers being played for fools here in Pennsylvania to create this illusion that we're getting something for nothing, what they are doing is they are expecting the gamblers to subsidize these wages with tips," said Dianne M. Berlin, head of CasinoFreePa, an anti-gambling group.
Officials at the Meadows Racetrack & Casino in Washington, Pa., are paying their 302 new dealers $7.25 an hour. Based on the casino traffic and the local economy, they have said dealers have the potential to make between $40,000 and $50,000.
"That's what we're banking on," said new dealer Talli Abbondanza, 29, who was a bartender at a local club that closed earlier this year.
Pennsylvania first opened slots casinos in 2006. Last year, Gov. Ed Rendell and top legislators included the legalization of table games as part of a handshake deal to raise more revenue for the recession-battered state treasury. Lawmakers passed the bill in January.
Payment of licensing fees by the state's nine operating casinos and an additional casino expected to open later this year brought in $165 million in June. Over the next 12 months, tens of millions of dollars are expected to flow to the state and some local governments from a 16 percent tax on the casinos' take at the tables.
Kevin Ryan, the director of table games at Presque Isle Downs & Casino in Erie, said dealers there will make $4 an hour plus tips. About 500 jobs have been created at the casino because of table games, including Ryan's job. The Pennsylvania native had worked in the casino business around the country since 1980, but was unemployed when he heard about the opportunity.
And at the Rivers Casino on Pittsburgh's North Shore, about 450 new jobs were added to accommodate 86 new table games there. In all, the casino employs about 1,400 people.
Among them is Sean Haleem, 39, of North Versailles, who had been laid off from his job as an administrator at an insurance company for about a year before being hired at the casino. He had been contemplating leaving western Pennsylvania to find work after a couple interviews led to dead ends, but then decided to apply for a casino job.
Ten weeks later, he completed the training known as "dealer school" provided by the casino and was ready to work the tables. Wearing a uniform of black pants and a button-down, dark blue shirt, he said he was eager to start.
"Things tend to happen for a reason," Haleem said. "I'm excited, I'm not nervous. I feel prepared."
One of his co-workers, Yarchever, had been a professional figure skater for 18 years and worked in sales, but was eventually laid off. Both her love of blackjack and her desire to work with people drew her to the casino.
"For me, it's just the excitement of being able to interact with people," she said. "Win, lose, or draw this is an entertainment destination."