In March of 2020, shortly after the COVID-19 pandemic began shuttering businesses, Grand Casino closed its locations in Hinckley and Mille Lacs for several months. More than a year later, those casinos continue to work toward reopening all of their offerings – but not without challenges.
The hospitality industry was hit particularly hard during the pandemic, state economic analysts report, including the tribal-run casinos and their related hotels and other businesses that are often anchor employers in their communities.
Grand Casino, run by the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, closed March 16, 2020, re-opening its gaming floor during the summer after incorporating some health-safety measures, such as enhanced cleaning. But it remains partially shuttered.
Kim Hayes, vice president of talent for Mille Lacs Corporate Ventures, said in a prepared statement that the company has been “really encouraged by our Guests and Associate’s response to our safety efforts,” but that some of its operations were not fully open.
“While our gaming floor is open, along with select restaurants at each casino, other amenities are not open yet,” she said. “Our goal is to reopen other amenities as demand continues to increase.”
Options for workers
In her statement, Hayes said Grand Casino is “ramping up our recruitment and hiring efforts – that has definitely been the most challenging.”
She added: “The casino industry is not immune to the staffing challenges that most industries are facing. We are solidifying new recruitment plans now and as consumer confidence continues to grow, and vaccines are on the rise, we look forward to welcoming new Associates at both our locations.”
Hayes, through a spokeswoman, declined to elaborate on the casino’s strategies for recruiting workers.
Hospitality workers were laid off in some of the highest numbers during the pandemic, but getting them back is proving to be difficult for employers – even during the peak summer season, said Luke Greiner, an economic analyst for the state Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) who has been studying central Minnesota’s economy as it recovers from the pandemic.
“They laid those people off, and now when they want to rehire them, (those workers) have options they maybe hadn’t thought about before,” he said. “Maybe they can work for the manufacturer across the street. Unemployment insurance is also buying people some time to shop for jobs.”
That’s particularly concerning for casinos as many of them have been top employers in the regions where they are located, he said.
According to a report by Alessia Leibert, a research project manager for DEED, one-fourth of the workers in Minnesota who were eligible for unemployment insurance applied for that benefit during the year after businesses began shutting down. Fifty-nine percent of them had been rehired by their employer by the end of 2020, the report shows, though a third were laid off again and, Liebert writes, “it is still unclear whether they have been recalled or not.” Moreover, nearly one-third of Native American/Indigenous workers – many of them casino employees – were likely to be out of work late last year.
The Minnesota Indian Gaming Association declined to provide revenue or employment data for the casinos.
I reached out to a handful of casinos in rural areas and heard back from Grand Casino and Treasure Island Resort & Casino, which is run by the Prairie Island Tribal Community near Red Wing.
A gradual reopening
At Treasure Island, the gaming floor is open at full capacity; however, some amenities, such as the tribe’s 788-room hotel, are only partially open, public relations manager Aaron Seehusen said. To attract workers, the casino – the largest employer in Goodhue County with about 1,700 workers during the summer – is offering hiring bonuses and trying some creative ways to reach potential workers, such as virtual hiring fairs.
The casino is following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention protocols as it plans a gradual return to normalcy over the summer, Seehusen said in a prepared statement. “As we look ahead to our upcoming outdoor concert series, we look forward to welcoming our guests back to the Treasure Island Amphitheater as safely as possible.”
The classic rock band Foreigner will play before limited capacity at the casino’s 16,000-seat amphitheater on July 2; by September, however, the casino expects to welcome a full house for country star Luke Bryan.