Meredith Good Voice. Photo: Indian Country Today

Oklahoma's gaming fight is about people’s lives

Nearly 2,000 people work across the state as casino dealers
Indian Country Today

Meredith Good Voice was a card dealer for about a dozen years. She no longer works at a casino but she is worried about her former colleagues.

"Dealers make less than minimum wage and depend on tips to support their families," Good Voice said. "To work any other job, and have to rely on a paycheck every two weeks is worrisome."

A lot of Oklahomans worry that the dispute between the governor of Oklahoma and the tribes could put these jobs at risk.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor and Statistics, about 1,900 Oklahomans earn their living as Class III gaming dealers. Oklahoma’s gaming tribes recently sued the state to enforce existing gaming compacts. Gov. Kevin Stitt maintains that the compacts expired January 1.

Under the current compacts, tribes are expected to pay the state an exclusivity fee, ranging from four to 10 percent. Those fees are due January 20.

Since 2004, tribes have paid $1.28 billion to the state of Oklahoma in exclusivity fees. Tribes set a record in fiscal year 2018, paying nearly $138.6 million to the state, an increase of 3.48 percent from the prior fiscal year. Source: Oklahoma Gaming Compliance Unit Annual Report, Fiscal Year 2018

There are more than 130 casinos in Oklahoma after voters approved a gambling expansion in 2004.

Good Voice, Muscogee (Creek) Nation, worked for 13 years at the Hard Rock Casino, located in Tulsa, Oklahoma. For 11 years of that time, she worked as a dealer. The Cherokee Nation owns the Hard Rock Casino.

"All the table games, including craps and roulette, are considered class III gaming," Good Voice said.

She said that the process of becoming a dealer requires a significant investment in time and training as a career. "There's a lot of training we've gone through to learn each game," Good Voice said. "It would be a drastic change to work any other job besides dealing."

The Muscogee (Creek) Nation's accredited College of the Muscogee Nation even offers a Gaming Associates of Applied Science.

Good Voice said that apart from the training and duties, table games dealers would have a hard time adjusting to the financial aspects that come with changing jobs should anything happen to Class III gaming in Oklahoma.

The Economic Impact of Tribes

The tribes in Oklahoma provide nearly $13 billion in economic impact plus additional dollars toward education, health care and infrastructure. As former Gov. Brad Henry notes, "this is an industry that we can ill-afford to lose."

Posted by United For Oklahoma on Monday, January 13, 2020
United For Oklahoma: The Economic Impact of Tribes

There are only so many jobs available working in the resorts, adds Good Voice's friend Aaron Hair, Cherokee Nation.

"At the Hard Rock, we have something like table games 200 employees," Hair said. "Some folks would be able to transfer, but not everyone."

Hair has worked in gaming for 25 years and has seen a struggle between the state and gaming before.

"When we first got table games, back in 2003 or 2004, when we didn't have a compact with the state, we got shut down," Hair said.

Back then many of Hair’s colleagues had no choice but to leave Oklahoma to make a living.

"Table game dealers ended up leaving for places like Arizona or Florida,” he said.

Working as a dealer has been a good job for Hair. "I bought a house three years ago," he said. "I don't know what I would do if we had to go into other positions where I didn't have the opportunity to make as much.”

Hair said he felt like the tribes invested in gaming so that people like him, both tribal citizens and Oklahomans, could have careers and do well for themselves.

Now the divide between the state and tribes means an uncertain future.

"Would I try to move up into management," Hair said. "Do I try to go back to school?"

"It's got people thinking about their lives."

This story was written and reported by Angel Ellis. It originally appeared on Indian Country Today on January 14, 2020.

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