Michigan Tribal Casinos Still Paying Employees During COVID-19 Shutdown

Posted By Matt Schoch on April 13, 2020

While thousands of workers from Detroit’s three downtown casinos have joined the ranks of Michigan’s newly unemployed this month, many of the state’s tribal casinos have spared their employees.

On Thursday, the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians committed to paying full wages to employees at its pair of northern Michigan casinos through April 29, joining a growing list of tribes to do so.

“We understand that this is a difficult time for everyone and the health, safety and well-being of our team members has always been our top priority,” Michael Schrader, CEO of Grand Traverse Resort & Casinos, said in a statement. “We want our employees to know that we value their dedication and loyalty, and we hope this action helps to ease their burden during a time of such uncertainty.”

Tribal casinos have autonomy from the executive order by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to stay at home, but all 23 tribal casinos are closed because of the COVID-19 crisis, where the death count statewide on Monday reached more than 1,600, the third-most in the country.

Many tribes providing full pay for employees

Despite estimates of $1.5 billion in losses by US tribal casinos, many are still committed to paying their employees during the shutdown.

Just as the local tribe took care of Turtle Creek Casino & Hotel employees in Williamsburg and Leelanau Sands Casino & Lodge workers in Peshawbestown, the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians made the same pledge north of the Mackinac Bridge.

On March 31, the tribe announced its five Kewadin Casinos locations in the Upper Peninsula would close through April with team members continuing to receive pay during the closure.

“We felt it was in the best interest of our team that we try to accommodate them as much as we could during this unprecedented time,” said Allen Kerridge, interim CEO of Kewadin Casinos. “Anything that we can do to provide any assistance with our communities, we’re going to try to do.”

As noted by Online Poker Report, tribal gaming businesses are covered under the federal government’s stimulus act, which provides a paycheck protection program for businesses employing up to 500 people. In addition, tribes received $8 billion in direct relief as part of the law.

Uncertainty going forward for tribal casinos

The Bay Mills Indian Community announced its two U.P. casinos in Brimley would stay closed through April, but didn’t guarantee pay for workers past Thursday.

“In addition to protecting the public health, we are also committed to taking care of our team members and protecting the Tribe’s long term economic health,” BMIC Tribal Chairman Bryan Newland said in a statement. “We are looking at how we can ensure that our team members have the money they need to quarantine effectively.”

Gun Lake Casino in Wayland had guaranteed four weeks of full compensation for employees during the shutdown. However, that period will end Friday when the company’s 1,100 employees will be placed on short-term furlough, spokesperson Alexis Bolo said.

In addition, in their original notice that the Island Resort & Casino was closing in Harris, it was announced that “all employees will be compensated during the shutdown.”

However, the shutdown has stretched far beyond the original April 6 estimate.

During the original shutdown of Ojibwa Casinos in Baraga and Marquette, Keweenaw Bay Indian Community Tribal Council President Chris Swartz announced that “casino and government employees will be compensated during this temporary closure to help ensure their financial security during this stressful time.”

However, that shutdown was originally scheduled to end on Easter Sunday but will continue all month.

Detroit casino employees join unemployment lines

In Detroit, employees from Greektown Casino-Hotel, MGM Grand Detroit and MotorCity Casino were temporarily furloughed around April 1.

Those employees, who will have benefits paid for through June 30, are eligible for unemployment benefits, along with many throughout the state.

In addition to regular Michigan unemployment benefits, which have a maximum of $362 per week, out-of-work casino employees can get an additional $600 per week through the federal stimulus. Benefits were also extended to 39 weeks from 26 by the state.

Reports surfaced Monday about the unemployment website being down for workers attempting to file claims.

In the state, according to The Associated Press, more than 800,000 filed initial claims over three weeks, second-most in the U.S.

The American Gaming Association told PlayMichigan that at least 19,861 direct casino employees are out of work statewide. At the same time, the state could lose at least $1.05 billion in economic activity if the casinos are closed for two months.

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Matt Schoch

A Michigan native, Matt has worked at newspapers in Michigan, Missouri and the Virgin Islands. A versatile sports reporter, Matt has covered sailing on the Great Lakes, cricket in the Caribbean, high school and pro playoffs, and the Olympics in Rio. He's also the host of the Locked On Pistons Podcast and producer of a documentary on Emoni Bates. A former blackjack dealer, Matt has studied the industry from all sides.

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