Troubles continue to mount in Atlantic City

Photo by James A. McBride Some 9,000 people lost their jobs when the Showboat and other casinos in Atlantic City closed.
Photo by James A. McBride
Some 9,000 people lost their jobs when the Showboat and other casinos in Atlantic City closed.

Frances Deserino was born in 1944. Although she doesn’t look her age, that figure in the DOB section of many job applications, she thinks, makes a difference to employers.

She’s been out of work since September when Showboat casino in Atlantic City closed. She had been laid off at Trump Plaza, where she worked for 17 years, in 2011. It was the first wave of layoffs for the Plaza, which also closed in September within weeks of Showboat.

In a city that saw four of its 12 casinos close in 2014 alone, taking with them nearly 9,000 jobs, finding work in the industry isn’t easy and Deserino says her age isn’t helping. Neither is a knee problem that makes it difficult to walk.

Diagnosed with the problem in September, she says monthly gel shots do wonders to ease the pain by replacing the cartilage in her knees. The only problem is Medicare only covers 80 percent of the cost, leaving her with a $500 bill she can’t afford. She can’t help but think of the health insurance she once received as a full-time employee at Trump Plaza, and she says the limp isn’t helping her job prospects.

“I should be retired at 70 but I’m not. I can’t afford to retire, but I also feel better when I work. I’m not used to staying in the house all the time. When I work I don’t get depressed,” she said.

“I’ve never been in this predicament before. There’s an old saying — if I’d known I was going to live this long I would have saved a little more money; I would have taken care of myself,” she adds with a laugh.

She’s one of nearly 170 individuals affected by the casino closings who have called in to Catholic Charities’ emergency casino closing hotline for assistance.

Case worker and casino crisis team manager Jeanetta Warren helped Deserino pay the mortgage on her mobile home for the months of January and February, helping her stay above water while she looks for new employment.

“These past few months, Catholic Charities’ Casino Crisis Response Team has been a raft to keep people afloat until something else comes along. If you talk to any of the displaced people we’ve helped, they will say, ‘Thank God for Catholic Charities.’ It’s a very bleak situation right now. People are faced with catastrophe,” Warren said.

The best cases she’s worked on have been those where temporary assistance from Catholic Charities has helped them stay afloat until they’ve found new employment, Warren says. The hard cases are those like Deserino’s, where finding new employment is difficult.

Research conducted by U.S. Department of Labor last December found that many laid off casino workers, like Deserino, have been utilizing unemployment benefits to maintain their living expenses since the casino closures in the fall of 2014.

The research predicts that the number of former casino employees needing financial assistance will increase in coming months, and estimates that about 3,400 former employees will have exhausted their unemployment benefits by July of 2015.

To put things in perspective, in December 2014 the national unemployment rate was 5.6 percent. In the state of New Jersey, it was 6.2 percent. In Atlantic County, the number jumped to 11.5 percent. When unemployment benefits end for those people, the region will be facing a full-blown economic crisis, according to the Department of Labor research.

Deserino received her last unemployment check last week. She receives Social Security income, but it isn’t enough. She’s strapped with a mortgage on a mobile home she bought in 2010, and coupled with the lot rent for the community she lives in, her monthly housing costs alone exceed $1,000. That doesn’t leave enough money for utilities, let alone food.

She’s applied for utilities assistance through a few government agencies. She was denied at one because her combined income from Social Security and unemployment benefits was too high. Now that she’s received her last unemployment check, she can try again, but only after five weeks have elapsed since receiving that last check.

At another agency she was denied because she is single, with no young children at home.

Warren continues to work with Deserino as a case manager. Her new task to try and help Deserino with her utilities until she qualifies for the other programs.

“She’s a really caring woman. She tries to really help you,” Deserino said of Warren.

In the meantime, Deserino continues to apply for jobs wherever she can. She had worked as a dealer in two major games at her former casino jobs, but she’s now being told in interviews that she needs certification for a third game. That means going back to school, which costs money she doesn’t have.

“I would rather work in a casino because I’m so used to it and, believe it or not, I liked it. But at this point I’ll do anything. I’ve applied at Wawa, Home Depot. I’m willing to work if I just can get a job,” she said.

Friends have moved out of the area, seeking casino jobs in Delaware and Pennsylvania. Deserino said even if she could afford to sell her home, which, given current housing markets, would mean a major financial loss — the current going price for her home doesn’t even cover what she has left on her mortgage — she doesn’t want to leave the area.

“I’ve been here all my life. I was born and raised in Atlantic City. I went to school for about three years at St. Michael’s [former Catholic elementary school]. This is my neighborhood,” she said. Though she now lives in Egg Harbor Township, St. Michael’s is still her parish.

“If the bank forecloses and I can’t pay the lot rent, where do I go? It’s very scary to think that you’d be on the street,” she said.

Catholic Charities is supported by the House of Charity — Bishop’s Annual Appeal.