Immigrants enter job market through Pennsylvania casinos
ERIE — The gambling industry in Western Pennsylvania is betting on refugee immigrants. And casinos say it’s paying off.
At the casino at Presque Isle Downs horse-racing track, 40 percent of the men and women in the pits flipping cards and counting chips got their initial training in a room barely larger than a closet in the rear of a former Methodist church owned by Multicultural Community Resource Center, an Erie nonprofit that helps resettled refugees find jobs, housing and schools.
Paul Jericho, the center’s senior program officer for refugee services, was a part-time dealer, and the blackjack classroom was his brainchild. He had placed Bosnians as valets and Bhutanese in housekeeping and casino restaurants but thought a lot of talent was going to waste, especially with immigrants who are math whizzes.
“I just thought that the casinos offered a great opportunity for the refugees,” Jericho told the Tribune-Review. “Once they learn the system, they’re given a chance to perform equally with all the other dealers. It’s a meritocracy, and it gives them the chance to live the American dream.”
Nearly 200 of the 1,800 workers at Rivers Casino on Pittsburgh’s North Shore, from the finance department to blackjack dealers, arrived as documented immigrants in the State Department’s refugee resettlement program. That’s twice the rate of foreign-born employment for the rest of Allegheny County, and it’s growing as charities — including the Catholic Diocese, Jewish Family and Children’s Services and the Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council — help the state-regulated gambling parlor place qualified, law-abiding immigrants in service jobs that pay $22 to $28 an hour, depending on tips.
“The best word to describe them is ‘outstanding.’ Name the department, and in nearly all of them, you have immigrants,” said Rivers Vice President André Barnabei. “Food services, table games, valets, marketing. And many are becoming supervisors.”
Yet Barnabei emphasized: “It’s the same for all workers here, those born in America or those who came from outside the country. The industry always has rewarded hard workers who make a positive contribution, and it doesn’t matter where you come from.”
The Presque Isle casino had its own dealer courses, but because of language and cultural barriers, Jericho thought refugees needed a head start. He started by screening for those with the best grasp of English and arithmetic.
Today, the immigrants pick their own candidates for the center’s classes, and the nonprofit hires instructors to school them in the intricacies of card games.
So far, 89 have learned the finer points of doubling down, tilting and payouts and cutting inside the church’s classroom. Most are Bhutanese refugees, mainly Hindus, but some are from Burma, Iraq, Armenia and Eritrea.
Some rose through the ranks to become Jericho’s bosses when he pulls shifts at the casino. Others migrated to casinos statewide — including Rivers in Pittsburgh, where they generally make more money.
Jericho said Erie’s casino reaped a big payout, too. Officials found that immigrants typically are hard workers who almost never call off work or arrive late. They take their jobs seriously and make sure that others from overseas do.
“If you’re a no-show, you’re fired,” Jericho said. “But when you have the work ethic that these men and women have, you don’t have to worry about that.”
Two of Jericho’s early Bhutanese stars in the casino class were Pashtu Pati — everyone calls him “Pash” — and Bali Siwakoti. Asian nations often blocked refugees from getting jobs or starting businesses, Siwakoti said, so “we had to hide our identity just to find work.”
In the United States, “we can show everyone that we want to work, and work hard to get ahead,” said Siwakoti, 28, who obtained an insurance broker’s license and began a side business.
Pati told the Trib that the money refugees earn at Erie’s casino allows them not only to survive, but to thrive. He is beginning courses at Edinboro University to become a software engineer.
The hardest part of the casino job, Pati said, wasn’t mastering card and carnival games but learning American slang and picking up on gamblers’ humor, which sometimes is expressed in coarse language.
“People make jokes here that are different from what someone would say in Nepal,” he said.
“It took six, maybe eight months for us to get used to it,” Siwakoti said.
Tanka Ghimirey, 31, a Rivers table supervisor who lives in Carnegie, said many educated Nepalese arriving here speak British English, not American, so there’s a learning curve with “Pittsburghese,” but it’s not insurmountable. Picking up on the nuances of gamblers — such as knowing when to banter or remain mum — is more important.
“I remember everything about the camps. I was a little guy when I came from Bhutan. It was crowded and smelled bad. We slept on the ground and, later, on bamboo beds,” said Ghimirey, 31, an ethnic Nepali whose family was evicted from landlocked Bhutan in 1992.
When he flew to the United States in 2009, his accounting certification earned at an eastern Nepal college didn’t mean anything to American companies, and his employment experiences overseas didn’t translate well on his resume. He found himself working three jobs: cashier at Giant Eagle stores in Shadyside and Crafton, and in a Mexican restaurant in Pittsburgh International Airport.
Two years later, he became a janitor at Rivers Casino and kept up the moonlighting elsewhere, forgoing sleep to study for his casino dealer’s license.
“I worked 96 hours per week, and that’s not counting the time on the bus,” Ghimirey said. “I don’t mind working.”
Now he’s a boss, studying what 42 players and six dealers do on the floor. The only game he has not fully mastered is craps.
The wages and tips he earned allowed him to start taking accounting classes. He returned to Nepal to wed Bhagh Kadariya, 24, and rescue his parents from a refugee camp.
They have made Pennsylvania gambling a family affair. Kadariya works in housekeeping at Rivers, and Ghimirey’s elder sister and younger brother are blackjack dealers.
“If you’re an immigrant, this is the place,” Ghimirey said. “People should think about working here. They have great benefits, and the upper management reaches out to us. They want us to succeed in America, and we want to live the American dream. We’re a good bet.”
Carl Prine is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7826 or [email protected].