|By Howard Stutz, Las Vegas Review-Journal
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Sep. 8, 2005 - Less than two weeks after Hurricane Katrina laid waste to the Gulf Coast's gaming industry, some of the area's 14,000 casino workers are growing anxious about the future.
While several gaming companies, notably Harrah's Entertainment and Pinnacle Entertainment, have said they will rebuild their destroyed casinos, others have been noncommittal while building engineers and company leaders assess and evaluate casino barges and structures.
MGM Mirage announced late Wednesday it was accelerating the rebuilding process for the Beau Rivage, the largest casino in Biloxi, Miss., a day after Chairman Terry Lanni and other company executives and personnel descended upon the site to assess damage to the 1,740-room hotel.
Lanni said the property's 3,400 employees would be paid salary and benefits through December. He added the company's goal was to rehire all Beau Rivage employees once the casino is operating.
In addition, the company has established a recovery fund for the Beau Rivage employees, seeding the account with $1 million. The 75,000 MGM Mirage employees companywide can contribute to the account and the company will match donations dollar for dollar, Lanni said.
"It's one thing to look at the pictures on television," Lanni said. "When we finished the physical tour, we took a helicopter back to the airport. The whole area is pretty devastated."
Winds and a 30-foot storm surge left a dozen casinos in the Mississippi communities of Biloxi and Gulfport with varying degrees of damage. The four casinos in New Orleans were also damaged by the hurricane, but the city's evacuation and flooding have left all businesses in limbo.
The disruption has worried some workers and their families.
"My husband wants to go back to work because our life is there," said the wife of a casino dealer at the Beau Rivage earlier Wednesday. "But we haven't been told much, and what information we have received has been confusing."
The woman, who asked not to be named, has temporarily relocated to Seattle to be with her mother. Her young children have been enrolled in Seattle-area schools.
Meanwhile, her husband, a dealer who has worked at Beau Rivage since its 1999 opening, remained in Mississippi to ride out the hurricane. Their home, in nearby D'lberville, suffered extensive damage and they lost most of their belongings.
Attempts to talk with personnel through the MGM Mirage hot line for Beau Rivage casino workers last week were initially unsuccessful, she said. When she did make contact and her husband's paycheck was mailed overnight to Seattle, she said the package contained the wrong person's paycheck.
Lanni said MGM Mirage was doing all it could to help Beau Rivage employees. He said contact had been made with about 2,200 of the resort's 3,400-person work force.
The dealer went to the Beau Rivage on Tuesday and he received his paycheck, but it was for 60 hours, not the 80 hours he expected, she said. Some workers, his wife said, received paychecks for minuscule amounts or zero hours.
"There should not be any errors," Lanni said. "We want to correct any mistakes."
The woman's mother spelled out her daughter and son-in-law's plight in an e-mail to the Review-Journal this week.
MGM Mirage spokesman Alan Feldman, who traveled to Biloxi with Lanni, said he sympathizes with the situation of the company's employees. Touring the area, he said, was an emotional experience.
One of the initial problems, he said, has been getting information to affected workers. Telephone, electricity and other services are slowly returning to the coastal community.
Lanni said Beau Rivage looks somewhat normal from the front, but the first floor and 72,000-square-foot-casino, restaurants, retail areas and theaters may be a total loss.
"All the restaurants are gone and there is a lot of debris inside the building," Lanni said, adding it was still unclear how long it would take to rebuild Beau Rivage.
Grasping the extent of the damage the Beau Rivage received in the hurricane made communicating with employees difficult, Feldman said.
"Other companies saw their casinos on television and in the newspaper and they could see right away their properties were totally destroyed," Feldman said. "From the initial reports, our building looked to have suffered less damage than our neighbors. We weren't in position, however, to say how long we would be closed."
Feldman called the Beau Rivage employees, "the backbone of the industry." He said once the company and its building engineers can assess the structure, MGM Mirage will have a clearer picture of what the rebuilding process will entail.
"I totally understand her frustration," said Feldman, who asked the Review-Journal to send the family his e-mail address so he could resolve any concerns.
"We were trying every way possible to get information out and we are now seeing some things improve," Feldman said.
Feldman said Biloxi faces an enormous reconstruction process but rebuilding the casino industry is one of the more important aspects in reviving the Gulf Coast.
Mississippi Gaming Commission Executive Director Larry Gregory said the gaming companies are doing their best to take care of displaced employees. Sometimes, however, people fall through the cracks.
"Every company I've talked with has said the employees are the primary concern," Gregory said. "They've assured me the employees would be taken care of."
Harrah's, which lost its two Grand Casinos in Biloxi and Gulfport while Harrah's New Orleans is closed indefinitely, will open an employee assistance center at the company's midsouth regional headquarters in Gulfport this week. The center will allow Harrah's 8,000 affected employees to get medical treatment, collect paychecks, sign up for benefits and job openings at other Harrah's properties, and have questions answered.
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