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Atlantic City casino workers still labor under a cloud of smoke. But change is in the air


For Pete Naccarelli, working the casino floor at the Borgata during the pandemic felt like a holiday — and not because there were fewer gamblers.

Smoking was banned during the past two years, a nod to the respiratory infection COVID-19 that has taken so many lives.

But as soon as Gov. Phil Murphy lifted the temporary ban on smoking as pandemic restrictions were eased, the foul air returned.

Literally within minutes, the ashtrays were back on the gaming tables, customers were alerted that smoking was again permitted in limited areas, and Naccarelli's workplace resumed its dangerous and dreary existence amid secondhand smoke, he said.

The temporary holiday was over. But a new workers' revolt was ignited.

Naccarelli and two other dealers, Nicole Vitola and Lamont White, went to Facebook and formed Casino Employees Against Smoking's (Harmful) Effects, and they soon got in the face of the legislators in Trenton, demanding they close a loophole exempting Atlantic City's nine casinos from the state's 16-year-old ban on indoor smoking.

"I'm not one for advocacy, or I've never done it before, but that really riled me up,'' said the 44-year-old from Gloucester County, who has been a casino worker since 2004. "And we now we have 2,300 people ready to do the same thing." 

If history served as any guide, the well-intentioned activist-workers would have been given a sympathetic ear and polite smiles but would ultimately be shown the door.

The casino lobby, which fought for the special exemption and argues that it's essential to the industry's survival, would be deemed too powerful in the halls of the Statehouse.

Not this time.

Legislation to scrap the exemption is gathering steam and has surprising bipartisan support. It now includes backing from a new crop of South Jersey lawmakers who would traditionally be counted on to do the casino industry's bidding in Trenton. 

Among them are pro-business Republican lawmakers, including the newly minted Sen. Vince Polistina, R-Atlantic, and Assemblyman Don Guardian, the former Atlantic City mayor. The new Assembly Republican leader, John DiMaio, R-Warren, has also signed on as a co-sponsor.

"I have to tell you, as a former bartender myself, I don't think it's fair for a bartender in the casino industry to have to deal with someone blowing smoke in the face,'' said Sen. Michael Testa, R-Vineland, who was elected in November to his second term. "I think it becomes an equal protection issue."

Murphy has fueled the drive by declaring last year that he will sign the measure if is passed. The bill has picked up 28 sponsors in the Assembly and 15 in the Senate, or close to 38% of the upper chamber, and just six shy of what is needed for passage.

More: Atlantic City casinos get new tax deal under controversial bill signed by Murphy

And perhaps one of the most encouraging developments for Naccarelli's group and the supporters in the Legislature was former Senate President Stephen Sweeney's loss last November. 

Sweeney was opposed to scrapping the exemption. His opposition effectively doomed the measure in the last legislative session. A spokesman for Sweeney's successor, Sen. Nicholas Scutari, D-Union, now says he has an "open mind."

Still, the change in leadership and the growing expression of support doesn't necessarily mean that the exemption, carved out of the 2006 law, is doomed.

The casino industry remains an influential voice in Trenton, and it has mounted a forceful pushback, commissioning a study that warns ominously of dire consequences to the struggling industry if it loses its special franchise.

The report predicted that the industry could lose up to 2,500 jobs and 11% of casino revenue if forced to comply with a complete indoor ban. The nine casinos rely heavily on revenue from smokers, the report said — smokers  tend to lose more and spend more in the casino environs. An estimated 26% to 31% of revenue comes from smokers, the report asserts.

If banned from lighting up in Atlantic City, the report estimates, smokers from South and Central Jersey counties will flock to Pennsylvania casinos and North Jersey gamblers to tribal casinos in Connecticut where smoking is permitted.

Joe Lupo, president of the Casino Association of New Jersey, cited the historic decline of the casino industry over the last two decades, a decline exacerbated by the pandemic. And while revenues from gamblers wagering inside the casino improved in 2021, they still were down 5% below the level in 2019, the year before the pandemic.

"It's just ... a really difficult time to consider another detrimental nail in the coffin for Atlantic City,'' said Lupo, who is also president of the Hard Rock Cafe.

A powerful casino employee union also has opposed the measure, echoing much of the casino operators' warning that losing the exemption could cripple the industry. 

Yet this worker-drive fight reflects some of the changing, post-pandemic realities facing the nation's workforce. The virus and its path of carnage have also reordered the workplace.

Millions of white-collar workers remain working at home, rather than commuting to brick-and-mortar work sites. A reluctance to return to sometimes risky, manual labor and service-sector jobs is forcing employers to raise wages in a bid to bring them back. People are retiring earlier.

And still, casino employees are forced to work within the 20% of the casino floor that permits smoking.

“It's been 16 years of cancer diagnoses, 16 years of watching our beloved co-workers die,” said Vitola, a Borgata dealer and a CEASE co-founder, at a rally last week. “We keep hearing, ‘Now is not the time.’ When is it going to be the right time to care about us?”

Naccarelli and Vitola dispute the report's findings and accuse the industry of putting the pursuit of profits ahead of the health of their workers.

Critics also argue that the casino executives are living in a time warp, still haunted by the experience in 2008, when Atlantic City banned smoking for three months, only to reimpose it after revenues plummeted.

Since then, the public has adapted to the indoor smoking ban, despite initial resistance and warnings that it spelled the end for restaurants and bars. The apocalypse didn't come. Casino smokers are ready to make the switch, workers say.

"Everybody was fine with it,'' Naccarelli said of the smokers forced to go outside for a break during the 16-month temporary ban imposed by Murphy in March 2020. "Smokers didn't mind going outside because they're used to doing it everywhere they go."

He also doubts that the ban will spark an exodus to out-of-state competitors. Parx Casino, in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, which has attracted the largest revenue among the Philadelphia-region casinos, decided to maintain a no-smoking policy after Pennsylvania lifted its temporary ban.

“Even many smokers have given positive feedback and have not minded going to the smoking patio. Employees are extremely happy with the change — especially the table games team,” Carrie Nork Minelli, the casino's public relations director, told NJBIZ in February.

Sen. Joe Vitale, D-Middlesex, a prime sponsor of the measure, said the casino industry's the-sky-is-falling warning is the same tactic the restaurant industry used to prevent passage of the indoor ban in 2006. He believes lawmakers will tune out that argument this time.

"There will be the end of the world, and business will crater and there'll be this economic catastrophe,'' he said. "And that hasn't happened."

Naccarelli, a newcomer to the halls of Trenton, realizes that both sides in the battle are making "hypothetical" forecasts about what happens.

"But the only thing that's really true, in fact, is if you stop smoking, people will not die,'' he said. "That is what is happening now."

Charlie Stile is a veteran political columnist. For unlimited access to his unique insights into New Jersey’s political power structure and his powerful watchdog work, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

Email: stile@northjersey.com 

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