Stardust takes care of its employees

Stardust employees received official word Tuesday that the closing date of the venerable Strip casino will be Nov. 1 – an announcement driven by equal parts courtesy by Boyd Gaming Corp. and federal law.

The WARN Act, which dates from 1989, requires large employers to give workers at least 60 days‘ notice of a mass layoff. At the Stardust, more than 1,600 employees have been forced to decide whether to retire or look for work elsewhere.

But the memo, signed by Chief Executive Bill Boyd, was hardly the stuff of legal jargon. It was a short, bittersweet testament to the „hard work and dedication“ of the rank-and-file employees who made the Stardust „one of Las Vegas‘ great properties for nearly half a century.

„While this was a very difficult decision, we believe that it is one that will serve our company well in the future and will ultimately make us a stronger company for our employees and customers alike.“

The Stardust, the largest Strip casino to close in more than a decade, turned 48 in July. Incidentally, the closing also marks the last year that Boyd’s annual employee service awards, which will take place this month, will be hosted by the Stardust.

„These are very emotional times,“ Boyd Gaming spokesman Rob Stillwell said. „The great thing is that while we are saying goodbye to the Stardust, in many ways it is a new beginning for our company.“

The letter served more to prepare for the final chapter of the storied casino than to deliver news.

In contrast with some of Las Vegas‘ more abrupt, rumor-filled casino closures, the transition process for the Stardust began in January, when Boyd announced it would close the property by the end of the year to make way for Echelon Place, a collection of resort hotels and a convention center expected to open by mid-2010.

The closing date is earlier than the company expected because many workers had been leaving for new jobs, making it more difficult for the Stardust to operate, Stillwell said.

By midyear, the company had begun the process of placing workers into other jobs. For many longtime Stardust employees, this isn’t a simple process.

Both union and nonunion workers are receiving refresher training or new job skills for similar positions at newer properties that have different standards. Competition for good jobs remains stiff, employment experts say.

Boyd surprised Strip competitors by offering severance packages of USD 1,000 to USD 10,000 to the several hundred workers who intend to stay until the property’s close and then retire.

The Culinary Union, which represents about 900 workers, began training workers in August for jobs elsewhere.

Of the remaining 1,000 or so workers who aren’t organized, a few hundred have been placed or have accepted jobs elsewhere, mostly with Boyd in Las Vegas. Boyd owns the Coast Casinos chain as well as the Sam’s Town, California, Main Street, Fremont, Eldorado and Jokers Wild casinos. The remaining workers expect to receive severance money.

Industry observers are praising the company for practicing what some employers simply preach – making good by their employees.

With consolidation and the emergence of giant gaming companies, employers are putting a greater emphasis on employee relations.

With that in mind, the Stardust memo was intended as a sentimental send-off to preserve employee goodwill.

And for good reason.

Unlike past decades, when single operators closed their properties, Boyd has the resources to shift many workers into existing job openings. The well-planned Stardust closing process, some say, will become a model for other employers.

„The Stardust has really done an excellent job of setting a standard,“ said Arte Nathan, chief human resources officer for Wynn Resorts. „There wasn’t much before that – just people who were trying to do the best they could“ to help laid-off workers.

For instance, when Steve Wynn bought and then closed the Desert Inn in 2000, he couldn’t shift those workers into other jobs because he had sold off his other properties. Wynn also did not offer severance payments for all retiring rank-and-file workers.