When Rivers Casino Philadelphia reopened its doors in July after months of coronavirus-related shutdowns, its returning employees had to make some adjustments.
For one, the salaried workers took 15% pay cuts. And everyone was given medical instructions that some industry experts deemed unusual: Employees who think they might have COVID-19 must immediately alert the casino’s human resources department.
But as for telling their immediate supervisors, workers were only supposed to disclose that they wouldn’t be coming in.
“Do NOT share ANY FURTHER details about the reason for your absence,” the Daily COVID-19 Self Assessment instructions read.
“We’ve had a lot of no shows, and it raises suspicions of why hasn’t management come out and said anything,” one employee told The Inquirer.
Employees who have returned to the Fishtown casino since July 17 say mandated secrecy is emblematic of the way management has run Rivers this summer. A group of current and recently resigned workers spoke to The Inquirer about their fears of getting infected when they have been forced to rely on rumors and whispers for their personal safety and that of their families.
They say the casino’s mandates about how to properly clean surfaces are inconsistent, and often ignored. So is the requirement that customers must wear masks, with some dealers and supervisors not requiring gamblers to keep their face coverings on.
Those issues have frustrated these longtime employees, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, fearful of losing their jobs or facing reprisal.
“You got players walking around with masks on their necks, on their chin,” said one table games dealer. “The supervisors are afraid of the players. They haven’t been trained properly, and they’re afraid to say something.”
In recent weeks, as more and more dealers and other staff started to ask for days off amid this uncertainty, Rivers has been employing new strategies. Management issued a survey in late August, asking employees why so many of them were “calling out” and what would motivate them to keep coming to work. This week, Rivers announced a free, new “dealer school” to recruit new workers, and a sign-on bonus for experienced dealers joining the casino on a bank of the Delaware River that brought in $315 million in revenue last year.
“I don’t blame any of the management or my coworkers for why things were so bad — my coworkers and managers were some of the best people I worked for,” said another dealer. "I blame the company. I blame the executives. I blame the city officials that allowed this to be open.
“I know people want to return to normalcy, but at what cost?” the dealer added.
Representatives from Rivers, operated by Rush Street Gaming, declined to be interviewed for this story. They instead issued a statement disputing the employees’ complaints, saying the number of call-outs has been decreasing. The company, which operates similarly named casinos in Upstate New York, Iowa, and Pittsburgh, said it has hired additional cleaners to disinfect the facility and installed new air filters to help combat the virus.
“If any cases have potential for impact on Team Members or guests, they are notified accordingly,” Rivers management said in a statement. “Team Members with specific concerns are encouraged to speak with their Team Leaders. Our goal is to provide the safest possible environment and evolve as new information becomes available.”
The casino declined to provide specific numbers of positive COVID-19 cases among its staff. For their own privacy, employees are encouraged to talk only to their doctors or the casino’s state-appointed Pandemic Safety Officer, a casino spokesperson said.
Employees at Rivers aren’t alone in not knowing if, or how badly, the virus has spread through their coworkers.
A spokesperson for the state Department of Health said that casinos licensed by the state are not required to report positive coronavirus cases among their employees. Some businesses, such as nursing homes and universities, are. Tallies of coronavirus cases are kept by the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board.
Board spokesperson Doug Harbach said there have been 40 positive COVID-19 cases across the state’s 12 casinos since the state allowed them to reopen in June. Harbach declined to provide specific numbers for Rivers or any casino.
Harbach said in a recent interview that Rivers “met and exceeded the standards for COVID safety” set by the state board, and added further measures after an inspection by city health officials.
Management at Rivers echoed this, saying the casino “follows best practices from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and meets or exceeds all COVID-19 Casino Reopening Protocols” from the state Gaming Control Board.
But according to city health officials, their visit to Rivers just before reopening was less an inspection than a walk-through while recommending best practices for keeping gamblers and staff safe.
James Garrow, a spokesperson for the city’s Department of Public Health, said department workers suggested to casino managers how far apart to seat players and what kind of barriers to erect, among other recommendations. It was not, he said, a formal, point-by-point inspection.
“We haven’t inspected any facility to provide them with a thumbs up on opening,” Garrow said in a statement.
Returning employees complain that most of the visits, either by the city or casino executives, have been during the day, when the number of patrons has been moderate. More safety issues have cropped up during the overnight shifts, when the bulk of gamblers enter Rivers, according to one supervisor who spoke with The Inquirer.
Employees also complain of shortages of cleaning supplies or PPE, with one former employee saying he had to fill out a formal request to get a pair of disposable gloves.
In the first few days after the casino reopened, supply closets were stocked with disinfectants approved by the Environmental Protection Agency to be effective in killing the coronavirus, according to the supervisor and other employees. Those supplies were quickly replaced, the supervisor said, with regular disinfectant wipes. When the supervisor spoke with a member of upper management about the switch, she was told it was done as a cost-saving measure.
Management disputes this characterization, saying that no supplies have ever been substituted, and that everything provided to the employees to use has been approved by the EPA. Photos of some of those supplies, shared with The Inquirer, show that none of them are included on the EPA’s approved list of disinfectants effective against COVID-19.
Other workers complained of combative night-shift guests who ignore calls to stop crowding around tables or who argue with dealers about keeping their masks on.
One employee was so discouraged by this that he resigned in August.
“I had issues with certain managers reverting back to old rules, like if a player spends enough money, we don’t say anything to them. That bothered me,” he said. “And other situations where I saw managers who were just oblivious, and I wanted something done.”
Rivers is not unionized, and workers say they’ve had little opportunity to field their complaints.
Elsewhere, however, labor representatives at casinos with unions say reopenings have gone smoothly and continue to operate without issue.
C. Robert McDevitt, president of Unite Here Local 54 in Atlantic City, said the nine casinos his union works with — including Harrah’s Philadelphia in Chester — have instituted “vigorous contact tracing” among employees. He said news of the edict by Rivers to limit the sharing of information about positive COVID cases was “shocking.”
“You should tell your coworkers if you work with them," McDevitt said. "It’s part of being a responsible adult.”
At Rivers, some workers are trapped between their need to earn a paycheck and concerns about personal safety. A few said they wish the furlough had never been lifted.
“This is not something to be messed with," said one longtime employee, who said he’s considering leaving. "I don’t want to give this to my family. I don’t feel safe, and I know a lot of other employees don’t either.”
“There’s a lot of politics involved, for a lot of money they’re bringing in,” he added. “The fact that I can’t go to the Phillies game … but these people can come in and gamble? It’s just to make the city money.”