Workers sue over law exempting Atlantic City casinos from indoor smoking ban

April 5, 2024 2:54 PM
Photo: Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights (courtesy)/U.S. Senate candidate Andy Kim speaks to Atlantic City casino workers challenging New Jersey's law that exempts casinos from the state's indoor smoking ban, April 5, 2024.
  • Wayne Parry, Associated Press
April 5, 2024 2:54 PM
  • Wayne Parry, Associated Press

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — Frustrated at having unsuccessfully agitated for over three years to get lawmakers to ban smoking in Atlantic City casinos, workers on Friday tried a new tactic. They filed a lawsuit to try to overturn a law that leaves casino workers as the only ones not covered by the protections of a clean workplace air act.

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The United Auto Workers, which represents workers at the Bally’s, Caesars and Tropicana casinos, and a group of casino workers opposed to smoking in the gambling halls, filed a lawsuit in state Superior Court challenging New Jersey’s indoor clean air law.

Enacted 18 years ago, the law bans smoking in virtually all indoor workplaces — except casinos.

The litigation seeks to have that exemption declared unconstitutional on several grounds, including equal protection under the law.

At a rally outside the courthouse where the litigation was filed, workers said they are employing new tactics to ban smoking in the casinos after thus far failing to convince legislators to do it.

“Today, we get off our knees and stand up!” shouted Lamont White, a dealer at the Borgata casino and one of the leaders of the employee anti-smoking movement. “We offered them the carrot, and now they get the stick!”

Whether to ban smoking is one of the most controversial issues not only in Atlantic City casinos, but in other states where workers have expressed concern about secondhand smoke. They are waging similar campaigns in Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Kansas and Virginia

Ray Jensen Jr., assistant director of the local UAW office, said the venue for the fight has shifted.

“If the legislators in Trenton won’t do their jobs, we’re going to take the decision out of their hands and into a courtroom,” he said.

Mark Giannantonio, president of the Casino Association of New Jersey and of Resorts casino, declined comment on the lawsuit. But the association opposes a smoking ban, saying that to do so would put Atlantic City at a competitive disadvantage with neighboring states that still allow smoking.

The lawsuit names Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy, whose office did not immediately return a message seeking comment, and the state’s acting health commissioner. Murphy has said he will sign a smoking ban if the Legislature passes one.

Earlier in the week, Donna DeCaprio, president of Local 54 of the Unite Here casino workers union, said Atlantic City’s core business — winnings from in-person gamblers — continues to struggle. She warned lawmakers against doing anything to make the already serious problem worse.

The union opposes a smoking ban, saying it will cost revenue and jobs and possible force one or more casinos to close.

Only three of the nine casinos are winning more from in-person gamblers now than they did before the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020. Unlike in-person winnings, money won from online gambling or sports betting must be shared with outside parties and is not solely for the casinos to keep.

“Alarm bells should be ringing in Atlantic City and in Trenton as to both the short-term and long-term negative economic trends,” she said. “Representatives in the New Jersey Legislature must understand the perilous economic situation at hand for my members, and indeed all workers in Atlantic City.”

Earlier this year, state Sen. John Burzichelli introduced a bill giving the casinos much of what they want.

His measure would keep the current 25% limit of the casino floor on which smoking can occur.

But it would allow smoking in unenclosed areas of the casino floor that contain slot machines and are designated as smoking areas that are more than 15 feet (4.6 meters) away from table games staffed by live dealers. It also would allow the casinos to offer smoking in enclosed, separately ventilated smoking rooms with the proviso that no worker can be assigned to work in such a room against their will.

Workers pushing for a full ban quickly rejected that proposal.

U.S. Rep Andy Kim, a candidate for the Democratic nomination for a U.S. Senate seat, supported the casino workers.

“If I don’t want people smoking in the United States Capitol where I work, you don’t need people smoking where you work,” he said.