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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, March 25, 2002

Casinos employ global roulette

By Don Cox
Reno Gazette-Journal

RENO, Nev. — The last time an employee meeting took place at John Ascuaga's Nugget in Sparks, flags from more than 50 countries served as symbolic decorations.

Dina Trifunovic, a Muslim, and her husband, Mladen, an Eastern Orthodox Christian, work at Reno's Silver Legacy casino. They left Bosnia and Herzegovina in search of economic security. They found it in the casinos of Nevada.

Associated Press

"It showed we're from everywhere," said Larry Harvey, executive vice president for human resources.

Like the Nugget, casinos across Nevada are international melting pots of colors, customs and languages as workers from around the world deal cards, serve food, make beds and keep the books.

Check the identification tags employees wear on their uniforms. Along with names, you'll often see countries from Argentina to Zambia, and just about everywhere in between.

This summer, hundreds of college students from Poland will be temporarily added to the mix.

One casino company, Harrah's, recently completed a nine-day recruiting trip to Poland and Russia, lining up extra employees for the anticipated busy June-to-September tourist season at its Reno and Lake Tahoe hotels.

"It's cool to have people from different cultures and from all over the world working in your casino," said Greg Kite, employment manager for Harrah's Reno. "It injects some excitement in the atmosphere."

Hiring foreign workers to bus restaurant tables and make slot machine change isn't new. Normally, they just show up, often looking for what they sometimes can't find at home — jobs, money, adventure and freedom.

"When the fighting stopped, the economic situation was very bad," said Dina Trifunovic, a card dealer who came to downtown Reno's Silver Legacy Resort Casino in 2000 with her husband Mladen from Bosnia and Herzegovina.

She is a Muslim; he is an Eastern Orthodox Christian. They left their homeland's capital of Sarajevo after a four-year civil war that left much of the city in ruins.

"The relationship between people over there is bad," said Mladen Trifunovic, who displays scars from wounds he received in the fighting. "I'm Orthodox, and my wife is Muslim. People can't stand marriages like that."

Nobody recruited Dina and Mladen Trifunovic. They came on their own, obtaining status as permanent residents in the United States.

Leonora Garcia dished out soup in the employee lunchroom at John Ascuaga's Nugget in Sparks, Nev. Behind her is a map decorated with pins marking the home countries of each of the casino's 2,400 employees. Garcia is from the Philippines.

Associated Press

Since statehood, Nevada's been a destination for the foreign-born looking for jobs.

"We're a state that's been built on diversity," said Guy Rocha, the state archivist based in Carson City and an expert in Nevada history.

What's changed is the workplace, not the work force.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, men from overseas labored in Nevada's mines, not casinos.

"There was clearly a great deal of diversity among the miners and the mill workers," Rocha said. "Most of these people were unskilled. There were plenty of jobs to go around."

Casino personnel executives say that in today's tight labor market, with Reno's unemployment rate of 4.6 percent the state's lowest, they're forced to search for overseas workers to fill jobs that U.S. citizens are unwilling to do.

Last summer was the first that casinos hired large numbers of Polish students, with some hotels using recruiting agencies to fill quotas. Harrah's, the Nugget in Sparks and the Silver Legacy are among the casinos that will hire Polish students again this summer.

"In the Reno market, we probably have people from every country in the world working for us," said John Bates, director of human resources at the Silver Legacy. "I'm sure we have 60 nations represented at the Silver Legacy. That would be typical of the northern Nevada work force. It's getting more like that."

A wall map in the Nugget's employee cafeteria tells the story. There's a pin in the map for each of the Nugget's some 2,400 employees. Many are clustered in Nevada, California and parts of the world such as Mexico, Central America and Asia that have long been places of origin for people seeking casino jobs. Harvey estimates that 23 percent of the work force is from Spanish-speaking countries.

But pins are popping up in many other spots, especially Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

One of the pins in the Nugget map belongs to Jaroslava Fisher, a 51-year-old casino auditor.

Fisher isn't part of the latest wave of newcomers. She arrived in northern Nevada with her husband Jaroslav, an architect, and daughter Clara, now a student at the University of Nevada, Reno in 1986.

The family escaped from what is now the Czech Republic. When they left it was Czechoslovakia and was governed by a communist regime. They didn't climb over a wall or crawl through a ditch, but simply failed to return home after Jaroslav finished an overseas job assignment in Africa in 1985. They lived in France for a year before finding their way to northern Nevada with the help of relatives in the area.

In the United States, the family inserted an "h" in the middle of its last name, changing it from the Czech Fiser to a more American Fisher.

"We didn't work very well with the communists," said Jaroslava Fisher. "We were trying anything possible to get out of that cage."

With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the fall of communist governments in Eastern Europe, people no longer need to escape to reach the United States, and, eventually, northern Nevada, where casino jobs long have been plentiful.

"We are going to see more and more of that," the Silver Legacy's Bates said of Eastern Europeans working in Reno-Sparks and Lake Tahoe casinos. "When the wall came down, the opportunity was in the West. They are looking to go to where they can make a living. We like their work ethic."