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Casinos trying to fend off suits from fired cocktail servers

A tall, lithe blonde - in tight, black shorts, low-cut corset top, and heels - worked the $25 blackjack table at Parx like a dancer. All eyes, almost exclusively male, followed her every move across the floor.

Resorts debuted a Roaring Twenties theme with flapper dresses on servers and dancers from “42nd Street,” which was being staged there. (AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer)
Resorts debuted a Roaring Twenties theme with flapper dresses on servers and dancers from “42nd Street,” which was being staged there. (AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer)Read more

A tall, lithe blonde - in tight, black shorts, low-cut corset top, and heels - worked the $25 blackjack table at Parx like a dancer. All eyes, almost exclusively male, followed her every move across the floor.

The cocktail server, one of the Bensalem casino's Parkettes, set a cold bottled beer down in front of Matthew Warren, 39, a financial adviser from Princeton.

Having an attractive woman cater to his beverage whims makes a difference, Warren said, stealing a final glance as she turned to another customer: "Oh, yeah, absolutely. It's something pleasant to see."

In the increasingly competitive world of casinos, it's all about the customer's fantasy experience - the hottest games, the biggest payouts, the best-looking cocktail waitresses. And the beauty bar has been raised - younger, sexier, curvier - along with everything else.

"In a theater, you want the actors to look the part, act the part," said Jerry Wind, a professor of marketing at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. "What counts today is the consumer wants an experience, and everything that touches the consumer has to basically be consistent with the theme you are trying to create."

Since Las Vegas first rose from the Nevada desert, the buxom barmaid has been a fixture of U.S. casinos. Today's cocktail server is also an integral part of a casino's brand. Case in point: The Borgata Babes are referred to as its "ambassadors" and are often used for photo ops and at customer events.

It may be difficult to correlate the success of a casino with the image its cocktail servers project, but financial results suggest that "sexy" certainly doesn't hurt: The Borgata, which set the standard in Atlantic City when it opened in 2003, has ranked No. 1 in revenue there since it opened; Parx is ranked at the top in Pennsylvania.

However, a recent legal challenge to the hiring of younger servers to replace more mature workers at an Atlantic City casino has once again brought the issue of women's appearance and age and sex discrimination into the spotlight.

Resorts fired 15 longtime cocktail servers, all in their 50s, in March after modeling new flapper costumes. Resorts' new owners said the women did not fit its Roaring Twenties theme as a place for "fun, excitement and a one-of-a-kind experience," part of a rebranding of the struggling casino that includes period uniforms for bellmen, valets, and dealers, too.

Last week, feminist lawyer Gloria Allred visited Atlantic City to file the latest lawsuit against Resorts, on behalf of nine more women fired after modeling the flapper dresses.

Allred and New Jersey lawyer Virginia Hardwick represent the women, who are suing Resorts on the grounds that cocktail servers are employees who serve a function at the casino like everyone else and should not be subjected to an illegal age and beauty test.

"Male privilege is gone," Allred said Thursday in a phone interview from her Los Angeles office. "The concept that business can do whatever it wants, as long as it makes a profit, is gone. They have to be good corporate citizens.

"If Resorts wants to do business in New Jersey, it has to obey the laws of the state and the United States, which guarantee equal employment opportunity and [do] not allow employers to fire anyone because of their age, race, or gender."

In response to the lawsuits, the casino released a terse statement: "Resorts is confident that it has acted in accordance with all legal requirements in its employment decisions. As we indicated before, cocktail servers were given individual consideration, and the selection process was conducted in a fair and objective manner."

In both cases, the fired Resorts servers - several of whom started working at Atlantic City's first casino when it opened in 1978, when they were in their 20s - seek back pay and damages for pain and suffering.

A 2006 lawsuit filed by two Borgata Babes over the weight limit that they said cost them their jobs was settled out of court.

Parx's Parkettes, SugarHouse's Sweeties, and Borgata's Babes are part of overall marketing strategies.

Avid blackjack player Warren, the Princeton financial adviser, acknowledged that a cocktail server's looks do not influence how much time he spends at a casino. Luck does.

"Would I still come here even if they weren't as attractive? Probably," he said.

Still, said Cory Morowitz, who heads Morowitz Gaming Advisors L.L.C. in Galloway Township, fierce competition has made it critical for each casino to differentiate itself in whatever way it can - "from a well-designed property, to an up-to-date gaming floor with the right mix of slots and tables, to the marketing offers, to a friendly and helpful staff, to the uniform and look of the staff that delivers the service."

"An upscale, sexy casino should have upscale, sexy cocktail servers," said Morowitz, whose consulting firm represents Resorts.

Joe Lupo, senior vice president of operations at the Borgata, said the Borgata Babes "absolutely embody the essence of the Borgata brand, which is fun, upscale, energetic, and sensual."

And the company says it is invested in that "look": the Borgata Babes' low-cut costume was created by celebrity designer Zac Posen; the women prepare their hair and makeup at the beginning of their shifts, on paid time, and they are reimbursed for health-club memberships, personal training, and related services.

At SugarHouse on Philadelphia's riverfront, general manager Wendy Hamilton said every employee "has a role in delivering the brand promise and creating a professional image consistent with our casino. That's certainly true of our cocktail servers."

From a purely marketing standpoint, the Wharton School's Wind said, Resorts is trying to create "a truly interactive event."

"You want the audience in the casino, in essence, to play a role like in the theater - the feeling, acting, behaving as if they are in the Twenties," he said. "That will determine how successful the casino will be in doing that."

Resorts spokeswoman Courtney Birmingham affirmed that: "Every day, we present a show to our guests that all our employees are part of, and we invite everyone down to see it for themselves."

But Bob McDevitt of UniteHere Local 54, which represents 13,000 casino and hotel employees in Atlantic City, said the older cocktail servers trained the younger ones and were discarded after the 90-day probation period.

"This has nothing to do with them not being attractive," McDevitt said. "They were too old for Resorts and are being replaced by 18- and 19-year-olds."

Allred and Hardwick said Resorts was using the entertainment/theater argument in a failed attempt to fit within a "BFOQ," or bona fide occupational qualification - a legal exception for certain jobs, such as theater, where appearance can be a criterion.

"It is clear that the cocktail servers are serving drinks, not performing," Allred said. "The only one walking the high wire on this is Resorts, trying to justify a legally flawed argument. Their argument is in the theater of the absurd."