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Saturday, January 31, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Tulalip Casino lays off 240 workers seven months after opening

Times Snohomish County bureau

TULALIP RESERVATION — The Tulalip Tribes yesterday abruptly laid off 240 Tulalip Casino employees, many of whom finished their night shifts and collected their pink slips.

The layoffs are the latest sign that the Tulalips' glitzy, $78 million casino is not doing as well as expected when it opened to much fanfare in June.

The elimination of 240 jobs — mostly card dealers and food-service employees — leaves the total casino work force at just over 1,400.

The Tulalips closed their old casino when the new one opened. Then, tribal leaders hailed the new casino as a "cash cow" and projected it would bring in $161 million by the end of 2003.

Revenues and visitor levels have stayed close to projections, tribal leaders have said, but expenses have been high. During the first nine months of last year, for example, the casino gave away more than $3 million in free food and drinks, according to an income statement last fall.

Tribal members learned near the end of last year that the casino profit was falling below projections, in part because of inflated estimates, which tribal leaders blame on former casino General Manager Chuck James, who was fired in October.

In a statement yesterday, Acting General Manager Marci Fryberg said the staff reduction was important to "increase the efficiency" of the casino.

No tribal members were laid off yesterday, a fact that some nontribal members called unfair.

"Nontribal equals unemployed," read a sign one former card dealer carried yesterday during a short-lived protest near the casino.

Some former employees said they had more experience and seniority than tribal members who are still working at the casino. But a casino press release said members of the tribes are "shareholders" in the company. Under tribal law, members have preference at tribal businesses.

Fryberg did not return messages for comment yesterday, and a woman designated to take media calls said she could not speak publicly for the tribe.

Other employees left the maintenance building behind the casino yesterday carrying paperwork and the contents of their lockers. Casino security officers and Tulalip police patrolled the casino inside and out yesterday morning, escorting laid-off workers to their cars.

"There was speculation, but we didn't know that they'd do it like that," said Adrianne Mink, of Mount Vernon, who'd been working as a dealer for about six months and earning about $17 an hour. Now, she said, she'll collect unemployment until she can find something else.

The Tulalips offered unemployment-application assistance, job counseling and help with job searches to employees who were laid off, according to Fryberg's statement. Affected employees each got two weeks of severance pay.

The new Tulalip Casino was launched in June with a giant grand opening and 5,000 "distinguished guests," including casino regulars, leaders from other tribes and local politicians. The casino has more than 2 acres of gaming floor, 2,000 slot machines and four restaurants.

Washington State Gambling Commission Deputy Director Bob Berg said he didn't know of any other tribal casinos in the state that recently had to lay off workers. Tribal casinos tend to be successful, he said, though off-reservation cardrooms have a high failure rate.

While the Tulalips own the building that housed their previous casino, the tribes borrowed much of the money to build the new one, Berg said, and that may have made their casino operations more tenuous. Tribal officials have said they've struggled to keep up with payments on their debt.

Emily Heffter: 425-783-0624 or eheffter@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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