n an attempt to save on payroll costs, Graton Resort & Casino, one of Sonoma County’s largest employers, furloughed three-quarters of its workers on Friday.
The casino and hotel outside Rohnert Park, like many businesses in California, had to close its doors to mitigate the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
As reported by the Press Democrat, Graton Resort & Casino continued to pay most of its employees and cover health benefits through April after closing its doors on the eve of the county’s initial stay-at-home order going into effect in mid-March. Casino workers with less than 90 days on the job were laid off, and top management also took a 20% pay cut, according to Greg Sarris, tribal chairman of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, which owns the casino property.
The latest move, Sarris said, stemmed from a recognition that coronavirus restrictions on nonessential businesses would likely stave off any reopening for weeks, putting added strain on the business’ bottom line.
"We had to sit down with management and have some serious discussions," Sarris said. "We’ve watched things with the virus go from bad to worse and saw it would probably be some time not having any revenue coming in, so what are we going to do?"
Once federal stimulus checks began hitting employees’ bank accounts and it became clear casino workers would be eligible for unemployment assistance, Sarris said the move to furlough most of the casino’s 2,000 employees became more palatable. Those who worked at least 20 hours a week will keep their health care benefits through the shutdown, he said.
In the meantime, about 150 workers remain on the job, including those involved in security, casino and hotel maintenance, and cleaning crews and kitchen staff needed to feed them all, Sarris said. Another 350 salaried workers remain employed with the casino, according to the casino’s general manager, Lana Rivera.
Furloughs and layoffs have spread across Sonoma County’s hospitality workforce, which accounts for about 23,000 jobs. More than a third of the 160 hotel properties countywide are closed, according to the California Hotel & Lodging Association. While pay for furloughed workers has been cut off, many hotel operators continue to provide health care benefits, said Lynn Mohrfeld, president and CEO of the lodging association.
Meanwhile, Sarris said Graton Resort & Casino is eyeing a “modest reopening” by as early as June — a timeline that would seem to test now indefinite county and state rules barring even moderately sized gatherings of people through at least Labor Day, forcing concerts, fairs, and festivals to cancel.
Sarris noted that Wynn Resorts, which operates a casino and hotel on the Las Vegas Strip, hopes to again welcome guests by Memorial Day. Graton Casino, he said, has developed a four-step plan that Sarris said he sent to Gov. Gavin Newsom to help ease the tribe’s path toward reopening both its gaming floor and some of its 200-room hotel.
"We will work very closely with him to reopen in phases, and it’ll look a lot like a ‘Brave New World’," Sarris said. "Machines will be 6 feet apart and you cannot take off your mask unless you’re seated at a machine. Tables will be spaced apart and only three people allowed at a time, with the dealer heavily masked."
Newsom earlier this week unveiled his own four-stage plan for reopening the state’s economy. As a "higher-risk workplace," according to Sundari Mase, Sonoma County’s health officer, casinos would fall under stage 3 of that strategy.
However, as a sovereign nation, the tribe is not bound by Newsom’s statewide order or the county’s shutdown. But Sarris said he agrees with the governor’s data- and science-based approach and that the tribe would take all possible precautions if it decides to reopen ahead of the governor and the county.
Such steps could include installing thermal scanners to check patrons’ temperatures at entrances, Sarris said.
"I’ve never had the attitude of, ‘Well, we don’t have to do what you tell us’," he said. "We are good neighbors, and we live here, too."