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ATLANTIC CITY, July 28&mdash, The night the high roller dropped dead and casino workers rolled his body beneath the craps table so the game could proceed was Vinnie Springer's confirmation of the relentlessness of the game.
"Even when the paramedics came to remove the body 15 minutes later, the dice kept rolling," said Mr. Springer, a tall, amiable 40-year-old man who has worked as a craps stick man and blackjack dealer at Atlantic City casinos for the last 10 years.
Mr. Springer is part of the elite of Atlantic City's work force, the men and women who work the casino tables, winning or losing millions of dollars for the house on each eight-hour shift. White-Collar Pay for, Blue-Collar Jobs
It is high-pressure work, as stressful on a daily basis as being a big-city cop or an emergency room nurse, and signs of wear and tear on casino workers is becoming more pronounced as Atlantic City enters its 16th year as a gambling paradise.
"Behind the bright lights and the glamour are a lot of unhappy workers who earn white-collar pay for what are essentially blue-collar jobs," said Sandy Festa, an alcohol and drug counselor who also treats casino workers for a number of job-related complaints like depression and anxiety.
"They make too much money to leave, but they can't stand the thought of doing the same thing day after day for the rest of their lives," Ms. Festa said. "It's what is known in the trade as casino burnout."
Her husband, Elliott, who has been a blackjack and craps worker for 14 years, added, "You reach a point where you either take the job one day at a time or else quit and do something earning less money, but without all the stress." Audio, Video and Emotional OverloadsXxx
Among the chief complaints are casino work shifts, which are shuffled as often as decks of cards in the round-the-clock operations. Working on weekends and holidays. Boredom in roles that require a degree of cleverness in counting but not much more. Little chance for promotion.
Add to that the constant audio and visual overload of a casino floor -- glittering lights, the clatter of coins and ringing bells from slot machine payoffs, the stutter of roulette wheels and the whoop of joy or anguish from players -- and the casino can be a very demanding workplace.
Casino officials say the complaints are similar to grievances that arise in any workplace about unsympathetic supervisors or slow advancement. What adds new wrinkles are the dynamics of gambling, said Michelle Perna, vice president of human resources for Merv Griffin's Resorts Casino Hotel.
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"Our workers are paid well to make sure people have a good time," Ms. Perna said. "And that can be stressful if people are losing money."
Many casino workers, Mr. Springer included, count themselves lucky to hold jobs that can pay $40,000 a year, mostly in pooled tips -- though the average may be closer to $30,000 -- and that place them in the center of the action.
"Each day working in a casino is like New Year's Eve anywhere else," he said with a broad smile.
He rattled off the names of celebrities and sports stars he has met on the job. Venomous EncountersXxx
His co-worker, Billy Sullivan, nodded in agreement. "Real good people who treat you right," said Mr. Sullivan, who was joining Mr. Springer for an after-work round of drinks, shortly before 5 A.M., in the Chelsea Pub, a half-block from the boardwalk and the bright lights of Atlantic City's 12 casino towers, which employ 50,000 workers.
But they also described venemous encounters with players who blamed them for their losses, as well as big shots who treated them like dirt.
They and other casino workers all recall high rollers who years ago were given the red carpet treatment everywhere they went and today are broke, scavenging through the payoff basins of slot machines for overlooked coins.
"They're all searching for that lucky streak that'll win back what they lost," said a woman who quit working as a croupier after three years to return to college. Like many other past and present casino workers, she spoke only on the condition of anonymity. "I may want my job back some day," she explains.
She said she left the casinos because job pressures were getting to her.
"My mother was a pit boss and it was her whole life," she said. "I couldn't take the constantly changing hours and constantly being caught between management and the customers. Everyone's watching your every move, including the surveillance cameras in the ceiling, and one mistake really puts the heat on you.
"If your table is losing unusual amounts of money, the pit bosses start sweating and watch you even more closely to see if you're trying to 'help out' a customer."
Moreover, she said, there were the "guard dogs" or "blue coats" -- dealer parlance for the Casino Control Commission agents stationed on every casino floor to enforce state regulations -- who, she said, could "nit-pick on every rule in the book."
She was also bothered, she said, by the antipathy of some gamblers for women dealers, especially at the craps tables, where superstition rules just about every decision of some players. "They think women are unlucky and they don't want you to touch the dice," she said. Like a Number or a Dog
Her worst moment: A high roller on a hot streak refused to leave the craps table to go to a rest room after hours of play, and he relieved himself under the table, sending her and other croupiers scattering. "He went on playing as though nothing had happened," she said. "On my break the pit boss complimented me on not making too big a fuss."
Kelly Hass, who left her job as a casino coin-change supervisor to tend bar at the Chelsea Pub, said casino bosses could be friendly with the workers as individuals but ultimately had little regard for their welfare. Boredom Can Be Hardest
"They treat you like a number and ignore you, or treat you like a dog and fire you," Ms. Hass said. "There's absolutely no job protection."
Casino workers, unlike hotel and restaurant workers, have not organized a union and work at the pleasure of management.
"Some dealers have been fired on their break for their attitude -- not for something serious like stealing," Mr. Festa said. "Management knows they have people lined up for each job opening."
Despite all that, the hardest part of the job can be boredom. Most casino workers say that blackjack dealers face the most acute problem of keeping focused on repetitive action and the changing faces of players, even with a 20-minute break for every hour worked.
The most serious occupational hazard dealers face is gambling itself. "If you're constantly in the company of high rollers who throw tens of thousands of dollars around, you start thinking your salary is not that great after all," said Harvey R. Fogel, a counselor for compulsive gamblers who has treated scores of casino workers.
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"A majority of the dealers won't spend one minute more inside a casino than they have to, but quite a few spend their off-hours at other casinos losing what they had just earned," he said.
"The problem is I can't tell them to quit a $40,000-a-year job to get out of that environment and take a job for less elsewhere," Mr. Fogel added. "And if a dealer goes to his boss and says he's a compulsive gambler, it's worse than admitting you are an alcoholic or a drug addict in their eyes." Options May Be Illusions
Ms. Perna of Resorts Casino Hotel said that the casinos contract with companies to provide employee assistance programs to help workers with personal problems. Such programs are confidential, she said.
For those who feel trapped in a golden web and do not want to leave the casino industry, there are some alternatives, including taking better jobs as pit bosses or shift supervisors in new casinos that have been opening from Mississippi to Illinois.
Mr. Fogel says he believes the change of scenery may be illusory.
"The ones who are really troubled feel every decision they make is mechanical and every move supervised by someone waiting to pounce on them for screwing up," he said.
And the basic rules of the game, he observed, are the same no matter where one chooses to roll the dice.
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