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Dealer Shortage Forces Encore Boston Harbor To Keep Poker Off The Table

The Encore Boston Harbor casino in Everett is seen from Assembly Row in Somerville, Massachusetts.
The Encore Boston Harbor casino in Everett is seen from Assembly Row in Somerville, Massachusetts.

If Encore Boston Harbor were to reintroduce poker right now, as some of its guests have demanded, it would require the casino to close other table games because it cannot find enough people to hire as dealers, an executive told the Massachusetts Gaming Commission on Thursday.

The state's two casinos — Encore Boston Harbor and MGM Springfield — resumed mostly normal operations in late May without reintroducing poker. The gaming commission has taken notice of the 10-fold increase in complaints about the game's absence in the Bay State.

The casinos have both said they will make decisions about the future of poker by the end of the year.

"To be clear, we did not say 'never' to poker," said Jacqui Krum, Encore's senior vice president and general counsel. "We have said, 'Just not at this time.' We're constantly readjusting our offerings based on guest demand."

Krum added, "Throughout this difficult time, we have really tried to be agile and responsive. However, we do have limited space, and the former poker area is currently occupied by some of our highest-performing slot machines."

The Everett casino, like many other businesses around the country, has had a hard time finding people to hire for open positions.

Krum said Encore "simply cannot find enough dealers," or other workers, and has been running dealer schools "almost non-stop."

"Because of this labor crunch, reopening poker right now would necessitate the closure of other table games. We simply don't have the staff available to do both," she said. "We fully understand the impact of these changes to our valued guests, including our poker players, and if we could add another floor to the casino we would."

Bruce Band, the assistant director of the commission's Investigations and Enforcement Bureau and chief of the Gaming Agents Division, told commissioners Thursday that the number of complaints his staff receives about the lack of poker at Encore has gone from four or five a month to between 45 and 50 a month.

The commission decided that it would not take any action related to poker Thursday, and commissioners said they wanted to give the casino operator deference to run the facility in a way that maximizes tax revenue to the state while also preserving the jobs that come with table games. Commissioners said they expect regular updates from Encore on the status of poker.

Commissioners also heard more about the labor shortage affecting casinos.

According to Loretta Lillios, the director of the commission’s investigations and enforcement bureau, MGM Springfield has revised its hiring policy, and is now accepting applications from 18- to 20-year-olds.

Previously, the casino had only hired people 21 and older, Lillios said.

The newer, younger applicants are being considered for jobs including those directly involved with gambling.

The gaming commission also decided to hold off on bringing back employees to its Boston headquarters until October. The move to keep workers remote comes amid concerns about the spread of the Delta variant of COVID-19.

"We are concerned about not only the physical health of our employees, but also the mental health, because there may be some anxiety surrounding that, and going back into an office where people are congregating together," said Karen Wells, the commission's executive director. "So we're just trying very hard to be mindful of both things."

As the Delta variant has propelled another wave of COVID-19 cases, including breakthrough infections among people fully vaccinated against the virus, some large employers have delayed their return to more normal office operations, and some have mandated workers be vaccinated.

Wells said the commission is adhering to the Baker administration's recommendation not to require vaccination as a condition of employment.

NEPM's Adam Frenier contributed to this report. 

Copyright 2021 New England Public Media. To see more, visit New England Public Media.

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