California Casino Awards Workers ‘Hero Pay’ for COVID-19 Labor

A California casino last week surprised its workers by handing them checks for pressing on with their jobs during a most difficult year.

California Casino Awards Workers 'Hero Pay' for COVID-19 Labor
California Casino Awards Workers 'Hero Pay' for COVID-19 Labor
Augustine Casino team members rejoice with tribal officials after being presented compensation for performing their duties during the COVID-19 pandemic. The tribal casino is located in Coachella, CA. (Image: Augustine Band of Cahuilla Indians)

The Augustine Band of Cahuilla Indians presented more than 70 tribal government and casino workers with one-time compensation checks for their services performed in 2020 amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The Augustine Tribal Council approved a $10 per hour supplemental back pay award for essential employees who continued working during the coronavirus’ harshest and most dangerous days.

Checks ranged from a few hundred dollars to as high as $19,000.

The employees … continued to work for the tribe throughout the COVID pandemic while many Americans stayed home and collected enhanced unemployment benefits,” a tribal release explained of the “Hero Pay” checks.

The payments represented retroactive pay for hours logged during the initial 12 months after the March 2020 onset of the pandemic. The tribe said the payments were funded by a disbursement it received from the American Rescue Plan Act, which was signed by President Joe Biden in March.

Tribal Enterprises

The Augustine Casino is located roughly halfway between San Diego and Los Angeles, just outside Palm Desert. The gaming venue is less than three miles from the Empire Polo Club, which serves as the annual grounds of the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival.

The Augustine Casino features approximately 740 slot machines. The tribe does not offer table games, despite being allowed to do so under its Class III gaming compact with the state.

The Augustine Casino is smart to keep its total number of gaming positions under 751 seats. The tribe’s compact mandates that the casino pay the state $900 annually per gaming position up to 750 positions. That rate more than doubles to $1,950 per position for 751 to 1,250 total gaming seats.

The revenue arrangement also requires the Augustine Casino to share 17 percent of its gross gaming revenue (GGR) with the state on positions up to 1,000. Higher than that number, and the tax rate balloons to 30 percent.

Along with its lone casino, the Augustine Band of Cahuilla Indians own Synergy Blue, a gaming manufacturer that specializes in skill-based gaming.

Above and Beyond

Tribal officials at the Augustine Band of Cahuilla Indians — one of the smallest federally recognized tribes in the United States — say their workers are more like family. And the tribe treats them as such.

According to the tribe, 25 percent of the Augustine Casino workforce have been at the property for more than a decade. Ten percent of the staff have been with the casino from its opening nearly 15 years ago in July of 2022.

During the casino and tribe’s most difficult time in recent memory, Augustine Chair Amanda Vance said the employees stepped up to combat the virus.

Our team members were on the front lines for us, working hard to keep us all safe, to keep the business running and to protect our guests,” said Vance. “They deserve our deepest gratitude, and we are thrilled to be able to compensate them for their dedication.”

The Augustine Casino closed in mid-March of 2020, and remained closed until June of that year.

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