Graton Casino furloughs workers while planning summer reopening

Saturday 2nd May 2020

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Graton Resort & Casino, the Bay Area's biggest gambling hub and one of Sonoma County's largest employers, on Friday furloughed all but 100 of its 2,000 workers as the closed casino, like many businesses shuttered amid the coronavirus pandemic, looks to save on payroll costs.

The casino and hotel outside Rohnert Park continued to pay most of its employees and cover health benefits through April after closing its doors on the eve of the county's initial stay-at-home order going into effect in mid-March. Casino workers with less than 90 days on the job were laid off, and top management also took a 20% pay cut, according to Greg Sarris, tribal chairman of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, which owns the casino property.

The latest move, Sarris said, stemmed a recognition that coronavirus restrictions on non-essential businesses would likely stave off any reopening for weeks, putting added strain on the business' bottom line.

"We had to sit down with management and have some serious discussions," Sarris said. "We've watched things with the virus go from bad to worse and saw it would probably be some time not having any revenue coming in, so what are we going to do?"

Once federal stimulus checks began hitting employees' bank accounts and it became clear casino workers would be eligible for unemployment assistance, Sarris said the move to furlough most of the workforce became more palatable. Those who worked at least 20 hours a week will keep their health care benefits through the shutdown, he said.

In the meantime, about 100 workers remain on the job, including those involved in security, casino and hotel maintenance and cleaning crews and kitchen staff needed to feed them all, Sarris said.

Furloughs and layoffs have spread across Sonoma County's hospitality workforce, which accounts for about 23,000 jobs. More than a third of the 160 hotel properties countywide are closed, according to the California Hotel & Lodging Association. While pay for furloughed workers has been cut off, many hotel operators continue to provide health care benefits, said Lynn Mohrfeld, president and CEO of the lodging association.

With bookings reserved only for long-term guests or essential workers, occupancy rates at local hotels through April were down 64% compared to this same time last year, according to STR, a hospitality industry research firm. Upscale hotels in the county's tourist hubs, including Sonoma and Healdsburg, saw sharper declines of up to 70%.

About 4,000 of those employed in the local hospitality industry work in lodging, and jobless claim figures for that sector have yet to be released. Mohrfeld said more than 30% already have been laid off, with many others furloughed.

Unemployment across the tourism sector could reach 80%, said Claudia Vecchio, president and CEO of Sonoma County Tourism.

"No question, there's significant unemployment in the entire hospitality industry," Vecchio said. "I don't think we'll level out until the fall, but just as more things come back, we'll start to see employment inch back up."

Meanwhile, Sarris said Graton Resort & Casino is eyeing a "modest reopening" by as early as June -- a timeline that would seem to test now-indefinite county and state rules barring even moderately sized gatherings of people through at least Labor Day, forcing concerts, fairs and festivals to cancel.

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