Sunday , April 14 2024

Special Report: 1,200 Jobs Lost in Chukchansi Casino Closure

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About four months ago, the Chukchansi Gold Resort &amp; Casino shut down indefinitely. The&nbsp;&quot;temporarily closed&quot; sign at the entrance to Lucky Lane&nbsp;turns patrons away every day, but many former employees are anxious to return to their livelihoods.<br /><br />About 1,200 employees were laid off indefinitely when state and federal officials stepped in to shut down the casino in early October of 2014. They declared it a hazard to the public’s health and safety when several armed men entered the casino led by members of the McDonald faction in an attempted take-over.<br /><br />It sent former employees scrambling to look for jobs, turning to state help and family to get by.<br /><br />&quot;It was devastating. I mean, just to lose your job like that. It was like, what do we do now,&quot; Elizabeth Stephens said.<br /><br />She&nbsp;dedicated the past 10 years as a Chukchansi employee. Stephens loved her job as a valet transportation supervisor and she wants it back.<br /><br />Although the single mother lived pay check to pay check, she was able to make ends meet. But when she lost her job, she was in trouble.<br /><br />&quot;You take for granted, oh&nbsp;I can have a peanut butter and jelly sandwich–oh you can’t when it runs out and you don’t have money to buy it,&quot; Stephens said.<br /><br />It’s been a humbling experience, having to leave her apartment, turning to Medi-cal and food stamps to get by–a&nbsp;position she never thought she’d be in.<br /><br />&quot;If it hadn’t been for my sister, if it hadn’t been for God and then my friends and family, I’d probably be out in the street,&quot; Stephens said.<br /><br />Perhaps the most frustrating to former employees is that their job loss had nothing to do with them. Several years of tribal in-fighting over leadership came to a boiling point on Oct. 9. <br /><br />A total of 15 suspects were charged, including two leaders of the McDonald faction, Tex McDonald and Vernon King. They’ve been behind bars since November, charged with several felonies tied to the October raid.<br /><br />&quot;It just ended. And then all of a sudden we didn’t have work tomorrow and the next day and so forth,&quot; said former employee Alexander Tafoya. &quot;And then once the shock wore off, everyone was left with what do we do now.&quot;<br /><br />Alexander and his wife Tawny both worked at the casino for&nbsp;10 years each. The couple, with four children, is trying to recover from losing two incomes.<br /><br />&quot;Our savings, retirement, plans that we’ve had for little things that we’ve kind of&nbsp;taken for granted for trips and things like that, that’s pretty much come to a halt,&quot; Tafoya said.<br /><br />It’s a process that Peggy Ma has taken in stages–blindsided, angry, now&nbsp;frustrated.<br /><br />&quot;Then&nbsp;I went from there to, ‘Ok, what do&nbsp;I need to do to get back on my feet.’ Then I go out there and look, and there’s nothing,&quot; Ma said.<br /><br />The slot operation supervisor loved her job–one she had for 9 years–and she&nbsp;wants to return.<br /><br />Her life just became a lot more complicated, recently taking in her two young grandchildren and dealing with serious medical issues while struggling to afford health insurance.<br /><br />&quot;It’s either that or you eat and pay your bills, you know. So it’s going to be difficult,&quot; Ma said.<br /><br />In late January, about 600 Chukchansi tribal members gathered to affirm a governing board that would work with the National Indian Gaming Commission (NIGC)–the federal organization that shut down the casino.<br /><br />Nancy Ayala, co-chair of the Lewis/Ayala faction, said there was progress, with members approving the board, which she is part of.<br /><br />&quot;This is a first step, and we came together in a good way, and this is a healing process for our tribe, for our people and for the community as a whole,&quot; Ayala said.<br /><br />Members plan to hold a clean slate election by&nbsp;May 2&nbsp;that the federal government would, in theory, recognize, Ayala said. <br /><br />It will be a lengthy process, if, or when, the casino is allowed to open its doors again.<br /><br />&quot;If we get the green light, I’d say about 90 days,&quot; Ayala said.<br /><br />But there is no guarantee of that happening. And the damage has already been done.<br /><br />The Chukchansi Gold Resort &amp; Casino&nbsp;is one of the largest employers in the area. When they&nbsp;laid off their 1,200 workers, they sent a large swell of newly unemployed people into an already tough job market.<br /><br />From October to November, the unemployment rate in Madera County jumped by almost two percent (from <font size="2"><span lang="EN">8.9&nbsp;percent to&nbsp;10.7 percent).<br /><br /></span></font>In the meantime, Stephens is finding a way to survive, but all she really wants is to return to the place she called home.<br /><br />&quot;I’m hoping that they can come to an agreement, so that it can be opened–and bring your people back, because we’re all trained, we can do your job, we’re&nbsp;going to&nbsp;take care of it, you’ve got to take care of us too,&quot; Stephens said.<br /><br />It’s now in the hands of the NIGC to decide when the casino will re-open, once they determine that the tribe’s leadership has met all requirements.</div>

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