State regulators on Thursday signed off on some significant changes to how Encore Boston Harbor serves drinks, voting unanimously to approve the casino’s plans to replace some bartenders with drink-making machines and to add a new lounge for its highest rollers.
Members of the Massachusetts Gaming Commission had previously raised some questions about how the automation of some behind-the-scenes bartending services would affect employees at the casino. But they voted, 5-0, to approve the change after Encore officials assured them that they would retain a large majority of the approximately 40 workers whose functions would be taken on by machines.
Warren Richards, the Everett property’s executive director of food and beverage, told the commission that eight employees had left the company as part of the change. He said some of those people left for other jobs in hospitality. Encore employs about 4,500 people.
“Everyone is leaving on, as far as I’m concerned, great terms, and if they want to return to Encore we’d be happy to have them,” he said.
Though the state’s other two casinos, MGM Springfield and Plainridge Park, have used automated bartenders since they opened, Encore’s decision to add them after opening raised some concerns about the effect on employees who only recently took jobs at the casino, which opened in June.
Encore has said its motivation for the installation of the machines was to speed up drink service on the gambling floor. Customers have been frustrated about the wait times for drinks served as they played table games and slots, Richards said.
The casino told the gaming commission that it is automating seven of its eight service bars, which will have a total of 28 machines made by the manufacturer Easybar. The move does not affect customer-facing bartenders — only those who made drinks behind the scenes for cocktail servers to bring to gamblers.
The only service bar not affected will be near the high-limit area, where table minimums begin at $100 per hand and slots minimums begin at $5 per line. Players there often get drinks including high-end liquors and specialty cocktails mixed by hand.
Encore leadership also on Thursday laid out a new addition to the high-limit area : a luxe lounge for the property’s highest-rolling players. In documents filed with the commission, Encore said it is opening Salon Privé, a lounge offering free drinks and snacks to its VIP customers alongside the casino’s high-limit area.
Encore says its work force has shrunk from about 4,800 last year to 4,500 at the start of this year — primarily through attrition — as the casino looks to control costs amid a slower-than-expected start.
Some of the employees affected by the decision to automate service bars at Encore had complained to the commission.
In a letter, signed “Encore Bartenders” and sent in December, workers said they had been told that they did not have jobs, and that the casino was “offering us money to be laid off.” They said they doubted the machines would be faster, and questioned whether the move was a way to avoid paying union wages.
Another writer said the machines were adding to the already heavy workload of the staff there: “When servers and bartenders are overworked and stressed out, the first thing they sacrifice (unintentionally) is the judgment about whether or not someone should have another drink."
Richards said he did not expect that “overservice” would be a problem. He said he hoped the change would get the casino closer to its goal of being able to offer a gambler a drink once every 20 minutes.