NATIONAL GAMBLING IMPACT STUDY COMMISSION
THE HONORABLE EDITH PRAGUE
SENATOR PRAGUE: Thank you. Good afternoon, Madam Chair and Commission members. Thank you for the opportunity to address you today.
Recently I received a letter from an exasperated Foxwoods Casino employee and she said to me:
Dear Edith, haven't spoken to you for a number of months now. I hope you haven't forgotten about the thousands of employees that work on a sovereign nation. I have three questions for you and every politician. Why do we pay state tax? Why do we pay federal tax? Did I and thousands give up their citizenship when we became employees of a sovereign nation? Does anyone care to lobby for these issues or does all of this fall on deaf ears? We have to get rights now. We can't wait any longer, someone has to help.
I received this letter just about two months ago. I don't know what to say to this worker. One of the reasons I came here today to speak to this Commission was to ask you how would you answer this worker's questions.
My name is Edith Prague, and I live in Columbia, Connecticut. I am serving my fourth year as a State Senator for this area, and previously served eight years as a State Representative. I'm the Senate Chair of the Labor Committee for the Connecticut General Assembly. My district stretches from just east of Hartford to Salem, Connecticut, a stone's throw from the Foxwoods Casino. And my district includes the town of Montville where the Mohegan Sun Casino is located. Foxwoods is in Mashantucket, the Reservation for the federally recognized Mashantucket Pequot Tribe.
The Mashantucket Pequot's own and operate Foxwoods Casino. The Mohegan Sun is the casino owned by the Mohegan Indians but operated by non-Indians. The name of the operating company is Trading Cove Partnership. Foxwoods employs approximately 13,000 workers, the Mohegan Sun employs approximately 5,000 workers. Foxwoods is currently the world's largest casino. The Mohegan Sun has announced plans for a large expansion.
I am here today to testify primarily about the impact of Indian gaming on employees of Indian casinos owned and operated by tribes, where tribes have claimed employees are exempt from federal and state labor laws. In Connecticut, Foxwoods is the one casino that fits this description.
Also in this panel we will hear from Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, who will address a broader range of issues about how Indian gambling has impacted Connecticut. Again I will focus my testimony on employee rights at Foxwoods.
As I have already stated, Foxwoods and the Mohegan Sun are not the same. Most significantly, from my perspective, they have chosen markedly different approaches to the employees at their casinos. The Mohegan Sun has recognized the rights of their employees to be covered under state and federal labor law, including freedom from harassment and discrimination, the right to be paid for all hours worked, the right to use the State of Connecticut Worker's Compensation system.
Foxwoods Casino has not. Foxwoods asserts that workers are on sovereign land, and as such, have no right to federal or state labor laws. For many Foxwoods employees this has lead to a feeling of helplessness and abuse. I know because some of these employees call me.
Again, I strongly believe that the treatment of workers at Foxwoods is unacceptable.
I just want to make it clear for the record, however, that the effect of the two casinos has not been all bad. Eastern Connecticut used to be filled with manufacturing and defense industry jobs. We lost many of those jobs and for several years the people of Eastern Connecticut were hard pressed to find work, especially work that included benefits. The two casinos have stepped into the gap creating 18,000 jobs, many of which provide benefits. In addition to job creation, the casinos have contributed to the Connecticut coffers and to many, many community activities.
In 1997 alone, over $200 million came into the state's coffers. Since the onset of Indian casinos in 1992 over $630 million have been contributed to the State of Connecticut helping relieve the tax burden on our citizens.
I love this part of the world, and I want what's best for both my constituents and for all the people who live here including the two federally recognized Indian tribes, the Mohegans and the Mashantucket Pequots, but there has to be a balance. Today at Foxwoods there is no balance. Federally recognized tribes enjoy sovereignty which is guaranteed under the Constitution of the United States. Along with sovereignty there is a responsibility to maintain a basic respect for human rights. That is the balance we need.
The reason there is no balance at Foxwoods is because of how the Mashantucket Pequots have chosen their sovereign rights. The Mashantucket Pequots gained federal recognition through a special act of Congress passed in 1983. The Indian Gaming Rights Act was passed in 1988. In ten short years, the issue of sovereignty and what it means to not just members of a federally recognized tribe but also to the people who are affected by the actions of the tribe have been pushed to the forefront in Connecticut.
Although the Mohegan Tribe has also opened a casino and has also asserted its sovereign rights in other areas, again let me tell you, that they have agreed that workers are covered by state and federal labor laws. And so they are not the focus of my testimony today.
I am not opposed to sovereignty. I am however opposed to a tribe using sovereignty as a weapon to shield themselves from having to behave fairly and decently with their workers. There are just over 400 members of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe, there are just over 13,000 workers at Foxwoods Casino, some of them may be Mashantucket Pequot, the great majority of them are not. And what rights do these workers have?
Current employee rights at Foxwoods are very limited. Foxwoods has set up three arenas for employee's problems. The first is called the Employee Group Council. The second is the Board of Review. The third has become the Tribal Courts.
I'm going to explain a little about my understanding of these three arenas. Several years ago Foxwoods allowed employees to set up the Employee Group Council. The Council members are elected by their co-workers. But unlike the Tribal Council or the management of Foxwoods, this employee group council has no right to enact laws, make policies, hire, fire, or discipline managers or employees, or in any way substantially decide what is right and wrong at Foxwoods. Its mission is limited to providing input to management about treatment on the job and helping workers get through the system.
In 1994, Foxwoods set a board of review process for employees who feel they were wrongfully terminated or suspended. Three employees and two supervisors sit on each board of review. The members change from time to time. And the members are randomly selected from the work force. It might be assumed that the odd number is to prevent deadlock, so that decisions might be clearly decided one way or the other, but the decision of the Board of Review must be reviewed by the CEO of the casino who has the power to uphold or overturn what the Board of Review has recommended.
If an employee does not like the final decision of the CEO, she or he may take his case to the Tribal Courts. The Courts will review the decision of the CEO to see if it was arbitrary or capricious. But will not substitute its own judgment for that of management.
As of July 1997 a total of 81 terminated employees had brought cases to the Tribal Court, only two employees had won their jobs back. One of them died before he could go back to work.
Employees must hire their own counsel if they go to the Tribal Courts. Because of the extreme limitation of damages under the Mashantucket system virtually no attorney will take a case on a contingency basis. This means employees who make an average of $7 to $12 an hour must find the resources while unemployed to hire representation. Foxwoods does not experience the same resource problem when it goes to hire attorneys with over a $1 billion dollars a year in revenue it has been able to adequately represent itself in each court proceeding.
It is my belief that these three arenas are not enough. And let me explain why. I get calls and letters in to my office from employees at Foxwoods. They tell me of arbitrary treatment and violation of worker's rights. When interviewed in a New York Times article, one worker said: `They do whatever they please. They expect you to abide by their rules, but they change them everyday.' Another worker said, in that same article, that the air quality of the casino was poor. She said that when she saw a doctor because of a persistent cough, the first thing the physician asked was whether she worked at Foxwoods.
A recent memo sent by the Employee Group Council at Foxwoods to the CEO of Foxwoods Bud Sealy said:
'Dear Mr. Sealy, after reading the memo concerning the air quality study, we the Employee Group Council would like to express our actual thoughts.
For a long time we have been concerned about the air quality in our work place. Prior to the issuing of the memo, we were not consulted, we have not received regular information on air quality. We believe that a lot of problems currently exist and we have not seen progress in curing these conditions. Currently there are respiratory illnesses that employees never had prior to working here. On the Council itself, one former marathon runner now needs an inhaler to breath where he works. Another member has a recurring eye infection. She no longer can wear her lenses because of the air. Another member who has a yearly physical is a volunteer fire fighter has found a decrease in lung capacity He does not smoke. The bar area has a problem with molds growing and the drains need cleaning. In coin impressment the employees are subject to metal dust from spinning coins that each employee inhales. One dealer was told by her doctor that she would be on oxygen in five years if she didn't get out of that environment. The employees' cafeterias are constantly smokey. The limousine area needs to be tested along with other places where patrons do not go. Workers who clean with strong chemicals have read about possible kidney damage on the bottles of the products that they use.
All of these should be warning signs to management. Just check the amount of money paid to doctors and for prescriptions because of respiratory illness in all departments. We would appreciate in the future that you please notify the Employee Group Council before posting any notice with our name on it. We are willing to work with you to solve these problems. Sincerely, the Employees Group Council.'
All of these problems raise questions which are vital for you to answer in your report. Most importantly what kind of a system governs and protects the rights of workers on Indian reservations. Is that system a fair one. Is it consistent with the Constitution of the United States. I would suggest to you that no matter what the framework you adopt, you will find that workers at Foxwoods do not have adequate legal protection. If you compare the rights of Foxwoods employees to other employees who do not work on federally recognized reservations, you will find them lacking.
By way of example, I'm going to outline a few of the basic rights that all other workers in this country enjoy, and compare them to how Foxwoods employees are treated.
CHAIRPERSON JAMES: Senator Prague, unfortunately because of time constraints I'm going to, I want to let you know that each of the Commissioners has this in front of them in written format. And I would ask that each of the other panelists, if you would please summarize your remarks so that we could have the opportunity to interact with Q & A.
And I did interrupt you, and you had about fifteen seconds of your allotted time left. But I will ask you if, at that point you could summarize.
SENATOR PRAGUE: On page 10, I would call to your attention that the listing of Foxwoods workers have no right to go to the Department of Labor for wage and labor enforcement. Have no right to enforce an environment free of harassment and discrimination. They have no right to take their claims to outside of, their worker's compensation claims outside to the state courts who handle worker's comp. claims for the rest of the employees in Connecticut. The head of the Connecticut Trial Lawyers Association, Robert Reardon, has said that he would not go into the tribal courts system, he wouldn't participate in a system where I can't get justice for my clients.
Under the Indian Civil Rights Act passed over 30 years ago, the federal government applied the Bill of Rights to federally recognized Indian reservations. And this law requires that no Indian tribe may make or enforce any law prohibiting the free exercise of religion or abridging freedom of speech, or of the press, or of the right of the people feasibly, peaceably to assembly and to petition for a redress of grievances.
I will sum up by calling your attention to the United Nations Mandate. United Nations, the weapon they call sovereignty that is sometimes used by one tribe, and to quote Roland Harris who Chairs the Mohegan Tribe, the problem of sovereignty is either it can be used as a tool or a weapon. And when it's used as a weapon it denies workers basic human rights as outlined by the United Nations, the federal and state government and even the Indian Civil Rights Act.
I'm here today not to ask you to end sovereignty but to end the abuse of sovereignty. And something must be done for the workers at casinos owned and operated by federally recognized Indian tribes.
CHAIRPERSON JAMES: Thank you.
SENATOR PRAGUE: This complete disregard for democracy can not go on.
CHAIRPERSON JAMES: Thank you. I do appreciate that. I would remind the panelists that the timer is over here to your left, and if you want to keep a little bit of an eye over that way she can give you a count down so that you're familiar with how much time.
SENATOR PRAGUE: Is that ten minutes left for me?
CHAIRPERSON JAMES: No. You hit stop about ten minutes ago.
SENATOR PRAGUE: Thank you, Madam Chair.
CHAIRPERSON JAMES: Thank you very much.