By Seth Daniel
A host of state officials and criminal justice reform organizations have locked hands on the issue of hiring casino workers, targeting the “automatic disqualifier” provision in the Gaming Law as something that puts an unfair burden on residents with small-time criminal records and could even prevent someone from even getting a job at Wynn Boston Harbor as a bartender.
As the bullet begins to hit the bone for training and hiring many of the personnel that will staff the Wynn Boston Harbor once it opens in 2019 – as well as casino projects in Plainville and Springfield (MGM) that will open before that time – many are taking a closer look at a provision in the gaming law that could hurt the exact Charlestown residents that the law and the casino hoped to help by providing good, local jobs.
“The Gaming Law put a big premium on expanding opportunities for people in great need of expanded opportunities,” said attorney Margaret Monsell of the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute. “In some sense, the economic recession at the time caused Gov. (Deval) Patrick to look at gaming as a way to promote more economic development and to create jobs for all people. Excluding the people who are on the other side of the economic divide certainly is counter productive and wasn’t the express intent of the gaming law.”
Monsell’s organization has been fighting for criminal justice reforms many years, and was primarily responsible for the CORI reform package that passed the legislature in 2010. Now, however, her group is uniting with a call from the Massachusetts Gaming Commission (MGC) and the MGM casino in Springfield to call for an easing of the automatic disqualifier in the Gaming Law that could eliminate a lot of Charlestown residents with convictions from jobs that have nothing to do with gaming – including bartending, maintenance and transportation, to name a few.
The Gaming Law currently has the “automatic disqualifier” provision that prevents a non-gaming employee from working in a casino – even in hotel work, restaurant work and physical plant work – if they have a felony conviction in the past 10 years. In Massachusetts now, it takes 10 years before a person can seal such a felony record and not have it count against them for things like employment in the casinos. That threshold, the MGC said in a letter to the State Legislature last month, is too strong and in maybe needs some revising.
“Gaming service employee registrants make up a sizable portion of the total employees of the gaming establishment, comprising all employees who are uninvolved in gaming related activities, restaurant and hotel workers, bartenders, and maintenance,” read the letter. “While protecting the integrity of gaming in the Commonwealth will always be the highest priority, the commission has concluded that the application of the…automatic disqualifier provision to at least certain gaming service employees does not further this end. Therefore, the commission proposes that the subject provision be amended, and at a recent meeting, voted to notify you accordingly.”
For Wynn Boston Harbor, they have thought quite a bit about the problem, but said they didn’t want to comment on the matter now so far in advance of their opening.
“We will defer to the Gaming Commission and follow their decision and guidelines,” said a spokesman from Wynn this week.
House Speaker Bob DeLeo told the Patriot Bridge he is aware of the problem and hopes to address it and find a solution.
Monsell said Criminal Justice Reform enters into the conversation because Massachusetts has a very low threshold for some crimes to be considered felonies. One of those is larceny, and any type of larceny over $250 in value is considered a felony.
This is one of the changes, she said, they have pushed for that would help the situation for potential gaming employees. Last year, the Senate passed a reform of this that would make larceny over $1,000 a felony instead of $250. However, the House failed to pass it and the measure died.
Another change they hope to advance that would also help potential casino employees is the amount of time one has to wait to seal a felony and misdemeanor conviction. After the reforms of 2010, she said it now takes 10 years to seal a felony conviction and five years for a misdemeanor.
“We think that should be reduced further,” she said. “That’s another change on our list…We would like to see the felony larceny threshold increased also. One of the consequences of increasing the felony larceny threshold to $1,000 is there would be a lot fewer people with felony convictions that prevent them from getting these casino jobs because what are felonies now would become misdemeanors…That would also mean they could seal their conviction in five years rather than 10 years.”
In Charlestown, where residents will enjoy a hiring preference, the talk on the streets for quite some time is how the jobs for residents might be more elusive than first thought – primarily because of the provision that disqualifies so many people who have low-level felonies for things done long ago such as for drugs or larceny. Much of the sales pitch for the casino was that people who need a second chance could get one by breaking into the job market at the casino.
Now, that doesn’t appear to be as easy as it once seemed.