For Pete Naccarelli, working at the Borgata casino during the pandemic felt like a vacation – and not because there were fewer gamblers.
Smoking has been banned for the past two years, a nod to the COVID-19 respiratory infection that has claimed so many lives.
But as soon as Governor Phil Murphy lifted the temporary smoking ban as pandemic restrictions eased, the stale air returned.
Literally within minutes, ashtrays were back on gaming tables, patrons were alerted that smoking was allowed again in limited areas, and Naccarelli’s workplace resumed its dangerous, dreary existence amidst the second-hand smoke, he said.
The temporary vacation was over. But a new workers’ revolt broke out.
Naccarelli and two other dealers, Nicole Vitola and Lamont White, took to Facebook and formed Casino Employees Against Smoking’s (Harmful) Effects, and soon found themselves facing lawmakers in Trenton, demanding that they close a loophole exempting the nine Atlantic City casinos indoor smoking ban for 16 years.
“I’m not one to advocate, or I’ve never done it before, but it really pissed me off,” said the 44-year-old from Gloucester County, who has worked at a casino for the past 2004. “And we now have 2,300 people ready to do the same thing.”
Had history been any guide, the well-meaning labor activists would have received a listening ear and polite smiles, but would ultimately have been kicked out.
The casino lobby, which has fought for the special exemption and argues it is essential to the survival of the industry, would be deemed too powerful in the halls of the Statehouse.
Not this time.
Legislation to remove the exemption is gaining momentum and has surprising bipartisan support. It now includes the support of a new generation of South Jersey lawmakers who have traditionally been relied upon to answer the casino industry’s bidding in Trenton.
Among them are pro-business Republican lawmakers, including new Sen. Vince Polistina, R-Atlantic, and Assemblyman Don Guardian, the former mayor of Atlantic City. New House Republican Leader John DiMaio, R-Warren, has also signed on as a co-sponsor.
“I have to tell you, as a former bartender myself, I don’t think it’s fair for a bartender in the casino industry to deal with someone blowing smoke in their face. “said Sen. Michael Testa, R-Vineland. , who was elected in November for his second term. “I think it becomes a matter of equal protection.”
Murphy fueled the movement by saying last year that he will sign the measure if it passes. The bill received 28 sponsors in the Assembly and 15 in the Senate, nearly 38% of the upper house, and barely six less than it takes to pass.
And perhaps one of the most heartening developments for Naccarelli’s group and Legislature supporters was the loss of former Senate Speaker Stephen Sweeney last November.
Sweeney was opposed to removing the exemption. His opposition effectively condemned the measure in the last legislative session. A spokesman for Sweeney’s successor, Sen. Nicholas Scutari, D-Union, now says he has an “open mind.”
Yet the change in leadership and growing expression of support does not necessarily mean the exemption, carved out of the 2006 law, is doomed.
The casino industry remains an influential voice in Trenton, and it has organized a forceful opposition, commissioning a study that ominously warns of dire consequences for the struggling industry if it loses its special franchise.
The report predicts the industry could lose up to 2,500 jobs and 11% of casino revenue if forced to comply with a comprehensive indoor ban. All nine casinos rely heavily on income from smokers, report says – smokers tend to lose more and spend more around the casino. An estimated 26% to 31% of income comes from smokers, the report claims.
If lighting is banned in Atlantic City, the report estimates that smokers from southern and central Jersey counties will flock to casinos in Pennsylvania and gamblers from northern Jersey to tribal casinos in Connecticut where it is smoking allowed.
Joe Lupo, president of the Casino Association of New Jersey, cited the historic decline of the casino industry over the past two decades, a decline exacerbated by the pandemic. And while revenue from players betting inside the casino improved in 2021, it was still down 5% from the level in 2019, the year before the pandemic.
“It’s just…a really tough time to consider another detrimental nail in Atlantic City’s coffin,” said Lupo, who is also president of Hard Rock Cafe.
A powerful casino workers’ union also opposed the measure, echoing much of the casino operators’ warning that losing the exemption could cripple the industry.
Yet this worker-led struggle reflects some of the shifting post-pandemic realities facing the nation’s workforce. The virus and its carnage trajectory have also reorganized the workplace.
Millions of white collar workers continue to work from home, rather than traveling to physical job sites. The reluctance to return to manual and tertiary jobs, sometimes risky, forces employers to raise wages in an attempt to bring them back. People are retiring earlier.
And yet, casino employees are forced to work in the 20% of casino floor space that allows smoking.
“It’s been 16 years of cancer diagnoses, 16 years of watching our dear colleagues die,” said Vitola, a Borgata dealer and co-founder of CEASE, at a rally last week. “We keep hearing, ‘Now is not the time.’ When will it be the right time to care about us?
Naccarelli and Vitola dispute the report’s conclusions and accuse the industry of putting the pursuit of profits ahead of the health of its workers.
Critics also argue that casino executives live in a time warp, still haunted by the experience of 2008, when Atlantic City banned smoking for three months, only to reimpose it after revenues plummeted.
Since then, the public has adapted to the indoor smoking ban, despite initial resistance and warnings that it was dooming restaurants and bars. The apocalypse has not come. Casino smokers are ready to change, workers say.
“Everyone was on board,” Naccarelli said of smokers being forced out for a break during Murphy’s temporary 16-month ban in March 2020 wherever they go.
He also doubts the ban will trigger an exodus to out-of-state competitors. Parx Casino in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, which has attracted the highest revenue among Philadelphia-area casinos, decided to maintain a smoke-free policy after Pennsylvania lifted its temporary ban.
“Even many smokers gave positive feedback and didn’t mind going to the smoking terrace. Employees are extremely happy with the change, especially the table games team,” Carrie Nork Minelli, the casino’s director of public relations, told NJBIZ in February.
Senator Joe Vitale, D-Middlesex, one of the measure’s main sponsors, said the casino industry’s ‘sky is falling’ warning is the same tactic the restaurant industry has used to prevent the indoor ban from being passed in 2006. He thinks lawmakers will dismiss that argument this time around.
“There will be the end of the world, and business will collapse and there will be this economic disaster,” he said. “And that didn’t happen.”
Naccarelli, a newcomer to the halls of Trenton, realizes that both sides in the battle are making “hypothetical” predictions about what will happen.
“But the only thing that’s really true, actually, is that if you quit smoking, people won’t die,” he said. “That’s what’s happening now.”
Charlie Stile is a seasoned political columnist. For unlimited access to his unique knowledge of New Jersey’s political power structure and powerful surveillance work, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.
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