Casinos cut hours, blame Obamacare

Memo to workers cites mandate that is postponed to 2015

By Tyler Graf, Columbian county government reporter

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Chips Casino memo

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A management memo to laid-off employees of two La Center cardrooms, one recently closed, lays the blame for their loss of work on the Affordable Care Act, even though the act's employer mandate does not kick in until next year.

In the memo obtained by The Columbian, dated Jan. 24, Chips Casino's general manager Paul Twamley wrote that all "staff who have had hours reduced due to the 'Affordable Health Care Act' imposition now have the option of applying for employment at the New Phoenix and Last Frontier Casinos," two competing cardrooms in La Center.

Twice the memo says the hours are being cut because of the "imposition" of the Affordable Care Act. But in July, President Barack Obama postponed that mandate, which will require that businesses with more than 50 employees provide health insurance coverage to their employees, until January 2015.

Still, the memo says the remaining employees of Chips and Palace casinos, both owned by Lakewood-based Michel's Development, would bereduced to a maximum of 30 because of the act. Under the act, businesses must provide health benefits to employees working more than 32 hours a week.

While the memo places blame for workers' losses squarely on the legislation, often dubbed "Obamacare," cardroom spokesman John Bockmier said the reasons for Chips' closure were not primarily about Obamacare.

"The operating expenses have exceeded revenue," Bockmier said, adding that Washington's new minimum wage, the highest in the nation, played a role in the closure as well.

Chips Casino was the worst-performing of La Center's four gambling establishments last year. As of June, the end of the annual reporting schedule with the Washington Gambling Commission, Chips reported $3.7 million in net receipts. The city's top-performing cardroom — as well as the state's — was the Palace Casino next door. That cardroom earned $11.3 million in net receipts last year.

At the end of 2012, the Chips Casino reported losses exceeding $993,000.

Chips has also faced added competition in recent months from the Oak Tree Casino, roughly six miles away in Woodland. While the Oak Tree closed at the

end of 2012, a new ownership group re-opened it in September.

Bockmier said Chips is laying off 15 full-time and 15 part-time employees. According to the website for Michel's Development, the cardroom had 130 employees but, Bockmier said, a number of those were shared with the Palace.

WhileChips Casino has shut down, it hasn't relinquished its gambling license.

"They are licensed and will keep their license" until at least June 30, said Susan Newer, a spokeswoman for the gambling commission.

According to the memo, Chips' restaurant and bar will remain open on Fridays and Saturdays between 5 p.m. and 3 a.m. with live "Asian bands/singers."