Lawmaker wants probe of layoffs at Tropicana

Atlantic City – A state lawmaker is calling for an investigation into whether Tropicana Casino and Resort violated labor laws by laying off hundreds of workers, including the firing an outspoken employee who sued the casino last year after developing lung cancer.

Assemblyman James Whelan, a former Atlantic City mayor, said Tropicana has “decimated” its work force and reneged on a promise made by all casinos to create jobs in return for New Jersey’s historically low state tax rate on the gaming industry.

Tropicana has cut hundreds of jobs since last fall, including a new wave of layoffs over the weekend that included table games supervisor Vincent Rennich, a 26-year employee who has been a critic of casino smoking, which he blames for his lung cancer diagnosed in 2005.

Whelan, D-Atlantic, is asking the state Department of Labor to investigate the layoffs and to determine whether Rennich’s layoff was in retaliation for his lawsuit against Tropicana or his opposition to casino smoking.

“I would ask that you review all those layoffs to determine whether there have been any unfair labor practices or violations in those firings,” Whelan wrote in a letter Tuesday to state Labor Commissioner David Socolow.

Socolow spokesman Kevin Smith said the Department of Labor would look into the allegations, particularly if there was any retaliation against Rennich. In the meantime, the department has sent advisers to Tropicana to help laid-off employees file for unemployment benefits and seek new jobs.

Whelan was critical of Columbia Sussex Corp., the Kentucky-based company that took over Tropicana in January after buying out the casino’s former parent, Aztar Corp. Columbia has continued job cuts that began last fall under Aztar’s ownership.

“We don’t deny any business the right to profit. But one of the purposes of the casinos is to create employment opportunities. For this new company to come in and basically decimate the workers, and then to lay off Vince Rennich, it’s inexcusable,” Whelan said in an interview.

Rennich, 48, of Somers Point, has been one of the most outspoken critics of the smoky gaming halls. He filed a state Superior Court lawsuit last July alleging that Tropicana failed to protect him and others from the dangers of secondhand smoke. The suit is pending.

Rennich was fired only a week after he and other anti-smoking advocates testified before a Senate health committee in support of state legislation that would impose a total smoking ban in casinos. The casinos fear a smoking ban would cut into business by scaring away customers.

“I just feel that they used this as an opportunity to silence me and remove me from the property through their layoffs,” Rennich said. “Certainly, their contention will be that it was just a general layoff. What a convenient opportunity to do just that. But it’s wrong. It really is.”

State Sen. Ellen Karcher, D-Monmouth, released a statement denouncing Tropicana for its “disgusting” tactics in firing Rennich.

“To me, and to many other New Jerseyans watching this episode, this smacks of blatant retaliation against a whistleblower who courageously stood up for the health and well-being of others,” said Karcher, vice chair of the Senate health committee that heard Rennich’s anti-smoking testimony.

Tropicana spokeswoman Diane Spiers said the casino would have no comment. Fred A. Buro, Tropicana’s president and chief executive officer, did not return a call to his office.

The exact number of layoffs in recent months has not been disclosed by Tropicana, although Whelan said it has been in the hundreds, or about 15 percent of the work force.

Whelan also sent a copy of his letter to Socolow to Linda M. Kassekert, chair of the New Jersey Casino Control Commission. The commission will review the letter to determine “what response will be appropriate,” spokesman Daniel Heneghan said.

The commission requires casinos to maintain adequate staffing levels for their gaming operations. Over and above those requirements, it is left to the casinos‘ discretion to determine their staffing needs, Heneghan said.

Last June, the commission slapped Resorts Atlantic City with a $ 103,000 fine for failing to have the minimum number of surveillance officers on duty in the room where security cameras are monitored.