Downtown icon reopens: Binion’s is Back!

New carpet is laid and the brass is polished for today’s reopening of Binion’s Horseshoe, but hundreds of former and returning workers remain stuck with unpaid medical claims and damaged credit ratings.

D. Taylor, secretary-treasurer of Culinary Local 226, said about 400 union workers have been rehired. An estimated 850 workers will be on site today when the casino reopens at 4 p.m.

„They’re excited. Everyone from housekeeping to cooks and food servers, they’re very optimistic and happy about making the Horseshoe as successful as possible,“ Taylor said.

Bert Cabalza, a bartender at the Horseshoe since May 1, 1962, when he was hired by Benny Binion, said he’s remained loyal to the Horseshoe for more than 40 years because owners, management and customers have been good to him and his fellow workers.

„It’ll be good to be back. Everybody has to go downtown, and the Horseshoe will always be there,“ he said.

However, many former Binion’s employees remain disgruntled over issues involving their health insurance and medical claims under the previous ownership of Becky Binion Behnen.

Only about half of the medical claims filed by former nonunion employees, which could number up to 1,000 over the past two years, have been settled during the transition to Harrah’s Entertainment and MTR Gaming Group.

Chester, W.Va-based MTR Gaming Group bought the 52-year-old downtown landmark for about 20 million USD. Harrah’s will retain the World Series of Poker and rights to the Horseshoe brand name in Nevada for the remainder of what has been estimated to be a 50 million USD deal.

The three-way agreement, which was completed March 11, also calls for Harrah’s to operate the Horseshoe for at least one year, with options to extend the management agreement with MTR for up to two more years.

Before being forced to close Jan. 9, the downtown hotel-casino was self-insured and retained Mediversal to manage its health-care program for workers. However, the company never turned over funds to Mediversal to cover worker medical costs, even though the gaming company deducted medical insurance premiums from employee paychecks.

Some of the former nonunion employees have been forced to file for bankruptcy protection, have had their credit ratings wrecked and have had to pay their health-care costs themselves, despite having paid for insurance.

Binion’s Horseshoe and its former owner, Behnen, are being investigated by the Labor Department for possible violations of federal law involving 2.5 million USD in unpaid worker health insurance claims. A spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Labor said the Horseshoe is one of about a half dozen cases nationwide under investigation for nonpayment of worker claims.

A similar investigation involving the recently closed Castaways is under way, but the spokeswoman said that is coincidental and not an indication of a national trend.

At least a dozen former Horseshoe employees, all requesting anonymity, have contacted the Review-Journal in the past week claiming their medical bills remain unpaid despite promises from the Horseshoe. They said medical providers have turned their accounts over to collection agencies and their credit ratings have been damaged.

One former Horseshoe worker, who asked not to be named, said he will not go back to work at the Horseshoe, but he wants to have his medical claims covered.

„This has been going on for a year. I’m putting in job applications and getting them back because they say I got bad credit. I say ’no‘ and they say I’ve got medical bills in collections. I’m out of a job double because of Becky Behnen,“ he said.

Charlene Smith, the benefits-risk manager for the Horseshoe, said „probably a majority“ of the medical claims have been settled.

However, most are being settled for a fraction on the dollar, sometimes 30 percent or 40 percent, and it will take weeks for the information to get from the providers‘ central offices to collection agencies and credit bureaus, she said.

„It takes a little red tape, but a lot of them are good about it if employees call and let them know (payment is on the way),“ Smith said.

Former workers with accounts in collections, however, said vendors and collection agencies universally have been unwilling to take their word for it.

Smith said unsettled claims — about half of the outstanding total — are now the responsibility of Harrah’s and were turned over to the company on Tuesday.

Harrah’s spokesman David Strow said all verifiable claims of 5,000 USD or more that the company is aware of have been settled, but that Harrah’s is still working to resolve smaller claims.

„Frankly, it will take some time because there are so many,“ he said. „However, any claim or accusation that Harrah’s is somehow ducking claims or avoiding claims is absurd. That’s not how this company conducts business.“

Employees who think they have an out-of-pocket expense or medical claim that has not been addressed should bring it immediately to the company’s attention by contacting the personnel office at the Horseshoe, he said.

Meanwhile, in preparation for today’s events, Harrah’s has removed 400 slots from the Horseshoe casino floor, leaving about 700 in place, to make it more navigable for players, Public Relations Director Dawn Petrick said.

It has closed and walled off the deli, opened an adjacent snack bar and closed the upstairs Chinese restaurant, at least through the World Series of Poker, which is set to start a five-week run on April 22.

Harrah’s has also added a new registration desk and renovated the main bar area and the race and sports book, which will not be open when the casino reopens pending further regulatory review.

All carpeting in the casino and hotel hallways, suites and some guest rooms has been replaced and the guest room mattresses are all new.

Harrah’s spokesman Gary Thompson said the changes will be noticeable to the public, but the spirit and ambience of the Horseshoe has been preserved.