As Everett casino hires many, other businesses feel a pinch
The Encore Boston Harbor, recently cleared to open in late June, is rushing to finish filling 5,500 positions — luring employees from hotels and restaurants, from the airport and convention centers and hospitals, in what is surely one of the biggest hiring sprees in the history of Greater Boston.
The hiring rush is causing anxiety among managers across the region, as they lose star players to a shiny new employer offering higher pay and better benefits in a historically tight labor market.
At a recent Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce meeting, one manager at a major hotel joked that so many of his employees were being courted by Encore that he was considering ringing his property with barbed wire, according to several attendees.
Even having a few choice workers picked off can have a big impact. The French restaurant Deuxave will be down a quarter of its servers when three experienced employees leave for Encore, said owner Chris Coombs. One local luxury hotel had its human resources director picked off; another lost its executive housekeeper.
“I don’t have the luxury of having guests who can lose $1,000 playing cards to me before dinner,” said Coombs. “They’re playing a very different game than anyone in Massachusetts.”
The Everett casino, owned by Wynn Resorts in Las Vegas, is a $2.6 billion headache for local employers already struggling to hire and retain workers in a labor market where the local unemployment rate is 2.7 percent. With Encore committed to filling three-quarters of its jobs with workers from within 30 miles of Everett, the vast majority of its hires are likely to come from nearby establishments. And following the recent ruling that Wynn can retain its state license after an investigation into sexual misconduct allegations against former CEO Steve Wynn, some employers are bracing for an exodus of workers who were waiting for the ruling before giving their notice.
“It’s like sleeper cells. There’s all these people around town who are sitting on offers and they haven’t told their bosses,” said David Gibbons, executive director of the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority, which lost an hourly employee to Encore after the license ruling, in addition to four or five senior managers who left more than a year ago. “I think everybody’s going to be trading notes: How many did you lose?”
Servers at Encore will make between $6.44 and $7.66 an hour, plus tips, well above the $4.35 state minimum that many servers make. Dishwashers, security guards, housekeepers, and call center workers will make around $20 an hour — with benefits including paid parental leave and 401(k) plans for full-time workers. Around half of Encore’s 5,500 positions are expected to be unionized.
“Clearly, the labor market in Metro Boston is competitive,” Wynn Resorts said in a statement. “However, the combination of an exciting new industry and the appeal of the Encore luxury brand have driven a truly outstanding pool of candidates to attend our job fairs and hiring events.”
“You can’t compete against that,” said Bob Luz, head of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, who describes the Encore hiring as a “huge sucking sound” coming from Everett. “Whenever you have one employer that’s looking to hire 5,000 people in one geographic area, it doesn’t get much more disruptive to the workforce than that.”
Encore isn’t hiring just anyone, though. Wynn’s deep pockets and five-star reputation allow it to target valuable employees their employers are loath to lose.
Doug Bacon, whose hospitality group owns seven restaurants in Boston, has had at least three “excellent” employees — a manager, a line cook, and a food runner — leave for Encore from the Westland, his newest restaurant, next to Symphony Hall.
“It’s not easy to replace good people in this environment,” he said. “It’s been a little bit stressful.”
But Bacon can also see an upside. Wynn, known for excellent service at its luxury resorts, will likely improve the quality of the local workforce, he said: “They are grooming the people who are going to be running restaurants and hotels in New England in 10 years.”
Stealing away upper-level employees will also create higher-paying job openings for other workers to move into, said Jeffrey Gates, partner at the Aquitaine Group, which operates seven restaurants and is losing a server and a bartender to Encore. “When this is over, a lot of people are going to have better lives and better incomes because of it.”
Encore may also force employers to up their game in order to compete, hospitality insiders said, not just with better pay but with better treatment of workers.
“The people who are losing a lot of people probably should look in the mirror,” said Davio’s owner Steve DiFillippo, noting that one part-time cook has defected from his Italian restaurant chain. “Don’t blame the casino, blame yourself.”
“You can’t compete financially,” he said. “The only way you can compete is by building a relationship with your people. And you can’t start now. . . . Try to call somebody in July to come and fix your air conditioner. Not going to happen.”
Three of Joanne Chang’s employees were offered jobs at Encore — a line cook at her restaurant, Myers + Chang, and a baker and cashier at Flour, her chain of bakery cafes — making $22 to $24 an hour, an approximately 50 percent increase over their previous wages. Chang talked one of these employees into staying, with a raise and the promise that she would learn more with her than she would at Encore. But she can’t match what Encore is offering.
“We can’t multiply their salary by 50 percent,” she said. “We can’t do it for just them and be fair to the rest of the staff. And if we raised the entire staff by 50 percent we would eventually go out of business.”
Employers may be feeling squeezed by Encore, but the casino’s jobs are a boon for lower-skilled workers in the area. For those with limited English and no post-secondary education, the ability to make $20-plus an hour, with benefits, will go a long way toward covering the high cost of living and raising a family in Boston, said Jerry Rubin, president of the workforce development agency Jewish Vocational Service.
“I’ve never heard of dishwashers being paid that much,” he said. “It’s just remarkable.”
At a job fair JVS held for Encore in March, nearly half of the 115 attendees were offered jobs, Rubin said — the highest success rate he’s seen. Some of them were unemployed but willing to wait for Encore to open. Others were interviewed in Spanish. In its workforce development plan, submitted to the Massachusetts Gaming Commission last year when the number of hires was estimated to be around 4,000, the casino identified more than 900 jobs that did not require workers to be fluent in English.
Beyond blue-collar jobs and management positions, there are also roles in technology and casino security that will likely draw people from other industries, said James Rooney, president of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce. For people who want to switch careers, Cambridge College is running a blackjack and poker training program in collaboration with Encore.
“They have the advantage now of being the literally shiny new place to work,” Rooney said.
Paul Sacco, head of the Massachusetts Lodging Association, isn’t concerned about Encore stealing jobs. “I really haven’t heard any grumblings about it,” he said. “All I see is opportunity for nonskilled workers to be trained and for other trained workers to move up and open opportunities for other folks. . . . Everybody wins.”
But Encore still has 1,000 jobs to fill in the coming weeks. And that has employers gearing up for a last-minute flurry of resignations.
“I don’t think we’re done losing employees,” said Coombs, owner of Deuxave, dbar, and Boston Chops. “It can be kind of contagious.”