The Beau Rivage in Biloxi hosted 265 job seekers at a career expo last week, and 70 people were offered positions that day. The Beau Rivage still had another 80 open positions posted to its website on Monday. (File: Sun Herald)

BILOXI — At the Beau Rivage, even a job fair comes with the added razzle-dazzle expected from one of the state’s most prominent casinos: sequin-clad show girls, an ice sculpture and a musical performance.

And, of course, several dozen open jobs and on-the-spot interviews.

Service industry workers for the state’s casinos are in high demand. If there was ever a time for some of the state’s top revenue earners to put on a show to lure in potential hires, it’s now.

With COVID-19 vaccinations widely available and the busy summer season quickly approaching, businesses across tourism-focused coastal Mississippi have “Help Wanted” signs in their windows. Despite the number of open positions, some workers have shown they’re not eager to return to hospitality and service jobs. 

“People are more or less demanding to go back to work when it’s safe, for one, and when they feel fairly paid,” said Sondra Collins, senior economist with the Mississippi University Research Center. “Some have used the pandemic to gain new skills and feel confident asking for more.” 

That hesitancy could help push up the pay of Mississippi jobs, which has consistently had among the lowest median hourly wages in the country. Collins said the market forcing wages up could be the one positive thing to come from the pandemic. 

It’s the lower paying jobs from restaurant bussers to housekeepers that Mississippi largest casinos and resorts are vying to fill. Managers and owners are figuring out how to respond to staffing challenges. Many have praised Gov. Tate Reeves’ decision to stop the extra $300 per week in unemployment aid next month, hoping the move will bring workers back. 

“I started here at the front desk of the hotel,” Beau Rivage’s human resources director Kimberly Pelaez told the job fair crowd gathered in the property’s ballroom last week. “I turned a college job into a career that I love.”

The Beau Rivage used its showgirls to entertain job seekers at a recent job fair. Current employees of the Biloxi casino hosted a raffle and handed out prizes for attendees. Credit: Sara DiNatale / Mississippi Today

That was the theme of the Thursday expo: an entry level job at the Beau could lead to a long-term, stable career. The casino and hotel’s ballroom hosted 265 job seekers, and 70 people were offered positions that day. The Beau Rivage still had another 80 open positions posted to its website on Monday.

Despite the pandemic and the struggle to fill critical service industry jobs, Mississippi’s casinos haven’t slowed down much.

Gaming revenue across the industry dipped about 18% last year because of the pandemic, which closed down the businesses for about two months. By the summer of 2020, gaming revenue started nearing pre-pandemic amounts. People were bored, had stimulus checks and still wanted to gamble. 

This March, the state’s gaming commission reported the monthly gross revenue from the state’s casinos was the highest it has been since 2009 at more than $248 million. 

“We had what was a very strong March and a very, very strong April,” said Scott King, the assistant general manager and vice president of resort operations at the Golden Nugget in Biloxi. “Going into the summer, we have a lot of momentum.” 

King said the staffing shortages started back when the casinos first reopened, but they’ve continued to get worse as business gets better. In the spring his team would have up to 10 interviews scheduled for a day, but sometimes only two people would show up. 

Golden Nugget now has a job referral program for employees that can earn them bonuses. The casino has raised some of its wages and, like the Beau Rivage, says it’s emphasizing the ability to get promotions and turn an entry-level job into a higher paying career. King said when considering tips, there are a number of positions, like card dealers, that pay more than $20 per hour. 

Larry Gregory, the president of the Mississippi Gaming and Hospitality Association, said the jobs casinos need filled are across the board from food and beverage services to gaming tables. He applauded the governor’s move to end the additional money in federal unemployment, and he thinks the move will push workers back into open jobs. 

Unemployment in Mississippi pays up to $235 per week without the additional money per week from the federal program. With minimum wage at $7.25, workers collecting unemployment could make more collecting the combined benefits than in entry-level jobs available in the service industry. 

Collins, the economist, says there are several factors contributing to service industry workers not rushing back to jobs. Many of the workers are women, she said, who deal with the brunt of childcare — especially if they live in districts that chose to stay virtual this school year because of the pandemic. 

There are also workers who are still cautious of putting their health at risk, or are just getting their second dose of the vaccine and have been waiting to be fully vaccinated before facing customers again. She said the number of people getting vaccinated is more likely to encourage workers back than the change in unemployment pay. 

Marlene Patrick-Cooper, the president of Unite Here Local 23, represents casino and hospitality workers in Mississippi and across the South. She said some of her union’s members adapted after they lost their jobs last March. Now they feel more in control of their income, even if it means working three jobs at once. 

“A lot of folks felt burned,” she said. “The industry really abandoned them at the pandemic’s onset.”

Those who are back working at the hotels and restaurants are now dealing with the added stress of having to meet the demand from customers. There are often not enough workers to serve the surge of customers excited to be vaccinated and on the town. 

But even non-people-oriented jobs are feeling the upstick in stress, too.

Hotels shifted away from daily housekeeping in rooms to lessen person-to-person contact during the pandemic. Patrick-Cooper said the result has been fewer house keepers tasked with cleaning up messier rooms. 

The union rep agrees staffing needs to pick up for the summer rush — and rooms need to go back to being cleaned more often. But to get there? Employers need to step up, she said. 

“If employers want to paint the picture that folks make too much on unemployment, what that tells me is they don’t think workers should get much and they have been getting away with having poverty jobs,” she said. 

Patrick-Cooper says she’s seen a few casinos start to raise wages in response to the market, but she has yet to see it become an industry-wide shift in the region. 

About 265 people attended a recent job fair at the Beau Rivage. The Biloxi casino and hotel has dozens of jobs open as demand grows for service workers across Gulf Coast. Credit: Sara DiNatale, Mississippi Today / Mississippi Today

Back at the Beau Rivage ballroom, 27-year-old Joseph Taft of Biloxi was in a dress shirt and slacks ready to impress during an on-the-spot interview. He has been out of work for just over two weeks. He said he was a busser at a smaller casino in town that reordered its bussing and serving staff. His job was cut.

Before the pandemic, he was working at the Beau Rivage’s buffet. He lost that job when the casino closed at the start of the pandemic. He then traveled with a friend to Texas to do manual labor cleaning up an oil spill. 

When Taft returned to Mississippi, it took months for him to land that bussing job, where he was only making $6.50 an hour. He was paid below minimum wage because of the tips he earned in addition to set wage. But as a busser, he was splitting tips with servers.

He said he was never left with much and was still mowing lawns and taking odd jobs to make ends meet. He hopes getting back into the Beau Rivage could lead to the stability and advancement he craves.

“I don’t want to be flipping burgers,” he said. “I want a career.” 

He had planned to apply to get back in food service at the casino, but was persuaded to consider room cleaning. While training he’d make $11.32 an hour, he said. Once he’s on his own, he will clean two rooms an hour to make a $13 per hour wage. 

It’d be a larger paycheck than he was used to. And, so far, it seems like he landed the job. He’s just awaiting the final phone call.

READ MORE: Mississippi’s economy is rebounding, but growth expected to slow

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