Meskwaki Casino lays off 100 employees

Meskwaki Bingo, Casino Hotel

Roughly 200 days after the COVID-19 pandemic forced closures around the country, Meskwaki Bingo Casino Hotel (MBCH) has been forced to lay off workers in an attempt to keep their doors open.

The casino, located on the Meskwaki Settlement west of Tama, last week informed around 100 of its employees that they would be laid off.

“With almost thirty years in the business, this is one of the toughest decisions we’ve ever had to make,” MBCH General Manager Dan Strommer said. “The 100 employees that were laid off had this happen through no fault of their own, job performance or otherwise. The demand just wasn’t there.”

The casino reopened on July 1 after a three month closure period where employees were supported with pay and benefits, something Strommer said was a rarity compared to the majority of casinos across the country.

Many of the employees that have not been able to return to work were furloughed this summer as MBCH partially reopened its facility in July.

When the decision came to reopen, the MBCH leadership took as many precautions as they could to ensure guests and staff felt safe coming back into the casino.

But with those precautions came a dramatic reduction in capacity.

Many of the food and beverage venues within MBCH either have remained closed or have only partially reopened. Hours of operation have dropped from 24/7 year-round service to 24-hour days on the weekends and 8 a.m. to midnight from Sunday to Thursday.

Amenities like valet service have been discontinued as have live entertainment, something that was a weekly staple for many guests.

Several weddings had been planned at the MBCH convention center for the fall that would have brought in 200 to 300 people. With the social distance guidelines in place at MBCH, those events were forced to relocate.

With all of the reductions in service, it seemed layoffs were an inevitable outcome amid the ongoing COVID-19 public health crisis.

“In the casino business, what we did last week was what the majority of (entertainment) businesses did three months ago,” Strommer said. “We’ve waited as long as we could to see if it would bounce back, how fast or to what extent things would bounce back.”

Though the broader future is uncertain, Strommer expressed confidence in the MBCH organization and cautious optimism toward a return to services once the pandemic begins to resolve.

“Hopefully at some point, yes entertainment will be back,” Strommer said. “I would anticipate gradually as we get through this we’ll see those services reopen. There may be some things were we discover from an efficiency standpoint that we can get by with less staff. But when it does (bounce back), certainly those people that aren’t here now, we’ll be happy to have them come back again.”

Strommer said the casino is continually evaluating their options with sports betting, a potentially lucrative gaming avenue that was made available to Iowa casinos last year. He said the challenge is finding the right partner brand at the right time.

“We were pretty close right prior to the pandemic and then obviously that put a monkey wrench into everything,” Strommer said. “But that’s definitely something we’re pursuing and looking forward to having as an amenity in the future.”

Strommer noted that in the time since reopening, business has experienced a month-to-month uptick.

“I think a lot of the protocols that we’ve put into place have given our guests a sense of safety, that things are being done to prevent (illness) as much as we can. I don’t think there’s a bullet proof method that eliminates it completely.”

But the decision to make cuts now appears to have been done in an effort to avoid even more drastic cost saving measures with the holiday season approaching, typically a slower time of year for their business.

“The last thing we want to do is go too long where the decision to cut the workforce is even more drastic as opposed to making the appropriate decision at the appropriate time,” Strommer said.

In the meantime, the current workforce reduction at one of Tama County’s largest employers is sure to have an impact that extends beyond a weekly paycheck.

MBCH is a major source of revenue that supports the tribal community on and around the Meskwaki Settlement.

At one time MBCH employed as many as 1,000 workers from 55 different communities in the areas surrounding southern Tama County.

Strommer touted the benefits the casino business has and continues to bring to workers in this area. Beyond a paycheck the casino offers substantial health benefits and vacation time to its workers who, over MBCH’s 30-year history, have, in some cases, now brought their children and grandchildren to work at the same place of business.

The company held a series of meetings last Wednesday for remaining team members.

“We wanted to reassure team members that rumors of another closure were not accurate,” Strommer said. “I’ve heard rumors of two or three different theoretical time frames of what’s going to happen, but there’s no truth to any of those things. We’re here to stay. Like any business we’re going to adjust given what the conditions are, but we’re comfortable where we are now. We’ll do everything we can to make sure that what we do have we’ll keep, and as this thing starts to go away hopefully bring some people back.”