“Don’t Gamble with our Health!” Indiana casino workers fight for health and safety

by Lindsey Twin and John Mattessich

At 3:00 pm this Friday, a coalition of Indiana and Illinois casino workers will descend on the Indiana Statehouse in Indianapolis, the final destination of a car caravan that begins in Chicago. The action follows a May 1 online rally calling on gaming employers in the two states to provide affordable health insurance and to prioritize the safety of workers, their families, and casino patrons. UNITE HERE locals 1 and 23, IUOE local 399, and Teamsters locals 89 and 135 coordinated the action, encompassing 1,500 casino workers across the two states.

Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb plans to reopen the state, even though the new national model indicates the possibility of a six-fold increase in Indiana’s death toll after its early re-opening. During the May 1 action, Anjila Gaudet of Caesars Southern Indiana said that, “for us to feel truly safe, we need public health experts – not politicians, not business owners – but public health officials qualified to use science to ensure we are as best possibly protected as we can be in a casino environment.” A worker at her workplace was the first case in Floyd County and he later died of the virus.

The unions demand that casinos provide workers with better protections–including changes to how workers do their jobs, higher cleanliness standards, and others–and guarantee access to Personal Protective Equipment. In order to meet these standards, employers must meet a long-standing demand from workers for more adequate staffing.

Safety during the pandemic requires better health insurance. The non-union insurance offered by properties such as Indiana Grand Casino and Caesars Southern Indiana requires that workers pay high deductibles.  Before the pandemic, many workers would forgo seeing a doctor or getting prescriptions filled, often working while sick because they could not afford the medical expenses and lost wages.

As Terri Mitchell of Indiana Grand Casino said, “we are the ones that keep the place open and running so that they can make the billions of dollars that they do. I don’t see any reason why they can’t give us better health insurance and help us since we are the ones that are putting the money in their pocket.”

According to the Indiana Gaming Commission, Caesars Entertainment had $8.7 billion in revenue in 2019. Union health insurance would cost $1.33 million or 0.0152% of its yearly revenue. Penn National Gaming, the owner of both Ameristar and Hollywood casinos, generated $5.3 billion in revenue in 2019. Union health insurance would cost the company $7.98 million or 0.1506% of its yearly revenue.  Workers at other properties who secured union insurance have no deductibles or copays, and casinos in Indiana and Illinois clearly make enough money to provide the same coverage.

The struggle by casino workers is part of a resurgent labor movement during the pandemic and the wider economic crisis. Now it is time to stand with workers and demand the better conditions we deserve.

See you at the Statehouse this Friday!