ATLANTIC CITY - Anandi Patel was grateful for the free winter coat and ShopRite gift cards that she was given yesterday at a workshop for laid-off casino workers.
The 53-year-old housekeeper at Showboat lost her job last month - a telltale sign that the hotel rooms here and the mammoth casinos attached to them aren't getting filled like they once did.
Neither are the restaurants, as Borgata waitress Sacha Weeks found out the hard way. The Borgata laid her off last month after management decided to shut Specchio, one of two Italian restaurants there.
Things have changed significantly - and quickly. Two years ago, this town was building four megacasinos and was desperate for workers, particularly housekeepers for its gleaming new hotel towers. Now it is in the midst of its biggest workforce reduction in recent memory.
Workers, many of them immigrants who clean the bathrooms, feed the guests, and lug the bags, had been the backbone of Atlantic City's $5 billion casino industry. Now there is not enough work for them, the result of the spiraling economic collapse.
Harrah's Entertainment Inc., which owns Showboat, Harrah's Resort, Caesars and Ballys here, began shedding hundreds of workers in October - something unprecedented for Atlantic City.
Then last month, the Borgata, the city's biggest and most profitable casino, announced it was laying off 400 workers across the board, from management to cocktail servers.
Angst and disillusionment joined those laid-off workers who gathered at Dante Hall yesterday afternoon.
Unite Here Local 54, the union that represents about 15,000 casino food servers, housekeepers, public area attendants and bartenders, put together a two-day workshop meant to help the workers deal with their new status. The program ended yesterday.
Victor Torres, a doorman at Caesars, said he knew he was greeting fewer people and handing out fewer lollipops, which had earned him the nickname "Lollipop Man." Losing his job on Election Day still has not sunk in, and Torres said he was afraid that his wife, Josephine, a housekeeper at Caesars, could be next.
"If she gets laid off, we will lose our house. We will lose everything," Torres, 49, said yesterday in Spanish to Donna DeCaprio, the financial secretary/treasurer for Local 54.
DeCaprio said Local 54 had lost about 3 percent of its membership to layoffs so far.
"The industry has a sort of a cyclical nature to it," she said. "Every December and January we see layoffs, but it's never been this bad before and never been this early before. So this is really unprecedented."
This was not part of the dream of Atlantic City, where gambling revenue always grew - until last year, when it decreased for the first time in the 30 years there has been gambling here.
Former waitress Weeks, who emigrated from Ecuador 10 years ago, was lured by the bright casino lights that stretch across the city's marina and bay.
"I thought with casinos and Atlantic City, you're always going to have a job," said Weeks, a single mother.
Weeks, 37, said whenever she has tried to file an unemployment claim over the phone, the hold time was so long that she gave up. She has yet to file a claim, even though she has been unemployed since Nov. 29.
"There are so many people doing the same thing," she said. "I'm on hold on the phone forever."
For now, Weeks is applying for banquet work on New Year's Eve at either Caesars or the Trump Taj Mahal. She said competition for the one night's work was stiff.
"I'm desperate and scared," she said. "I have a 14-year-old son, a mortgage and car payments, and no job."
Patel, the former Showboat housekeeper, said she could not recall another time when housekeepers here were being laid off.
She said she would rely on her husband, Bababhai Patel, 62, a houseman who does guest deliveries and linen pickup at Trump Marina casino, for support. The couple moved to Atlantic City from Gujarat, India, 16 years ago.
"I'll wait until the economy improves before I look for another job," Patel said in her native language. "Right now I'm resting."
Bababhai Patel nodded and smiled at her in support.
"It's very slow," he said. "Guests don't come to play. They don't stay in the rooms. They have no money."