Carrying identification documents and bitterness over their sudden joblessness, hundreds of ex-casino workers began filing for unemployment Wednesday morning, the first attendees at an assistance center that expects to process 5,000 newly laid-off workers over the next three days.
The session at the Atlantic City Convention Center came after a brutal weekend that saw two casinos, the Showboat and Revel, close. Officials from the state Department of Labor and the main casino workers' union, Local 54 of Unite-HERE, helped displaced workers file for unemployment and gave them information on signing up for health insurance and other benefits.
By mid-September, Atlantic City, which started the year with 12 casinos, will be down to eight, and almost 8,000 people will be out of work. Trump Plaza is closing Sept. 16, and the Atlantic Club shut down in January.
About 300 workers were lined up when the doors opened at 9 a.m.; by early afternoon more than 750 had been processed.
"It's really depressing," said Dale Browne, who worked as a housekeeper at Showboat for 14 years. "People have mortgages, kids in school. We're afraid the crime rate is going to go up. I want to say we'll be all right down the road, but right now, it's rough."
Ruth Ann Joyce and her husband, Michael, were hired together as bartenders at Showboat when it opened in March 1987, and they raised a family on their casino jobs.
"We made good money. We had great benefits. We worked hard and we were rewarded for it," she said. "For the past 27 years, we had the American dream. This closing is a tragedy, and it didn't have to happen."
The state Department of Labor had 40 workers helping applicants register for unemployment and connect with job search resources. Other social service agencies helped enroll them for health insurance and food assistance.
"They don't want to collect unemployment," said Bob McDevitt, Local 54's president. "They just want to get to their next job."
Helpers assisted people in English, Spanish, Gujarati, Bangla, Hindi, Mandarin and Cantonese Chinese, Vietnamese and Creole.
A union volunteer helped a laid-off Revel dealer navigate the computer application for unemployment, verifying his personal information and work history, his eligibility status and calculating how much he made between salary and tips on his last few days at work. The dealer opted to have his unemployment benefits taxed from each check rather than paying a lump sum tax himself in April.
Other workers discussed the possibility of early retirements with counselors. In a separate room, others signed up for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act. Tables offered help with food stamps, too.
The casino consolidation buffeting Atlantic City is a reaction to the ever-increasing competition from casinos in neighboring states, including Pennsylvania, New York, Maryland and Connecticut. Atlantic City's casino revenue has fallen from a high of $5.2 billion in 2006, when the first Pennsylvania casino opened, to $2.86 billion last year.
Casino analysts and industry executives say the closings are a needed correction to an oversaturated market and predict that the remaining eight casinos will do better financially with less competition.
But big-picture economics was not on the minds of those who turned out for the unemployment session Wednesday. Ronnie Downing, a laid-off Revel worker, said he and his co-workers were shocked when it closed.
"Many of us, myself included, haven't figured out what we're going to do next," he said.