Massachusetts casino regulators are being urged to relax restrictions on people with criminal records getting jobs in the state’s casinos.
The Massachusetts Gaming Commission, at its meeting in Springfield Thursday, voted to approve MGM’s plan to recruit, hire and train people to work in the Springfield casino which is scheduled to open in September 2018.
Executives from MGM were joined by corrections officials, criminal justice reform advocates, and Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno in arguing before the commission that the current registration standards for casino employees will exclude too many otherwise qualified people because of prior criminal convictions.
" You are hearing this from a ' law and order' mayor," said Sarno. " It is not about entitlement, but empowerment."
But lawyers disagree over whether the commissioners alone can change the standards, or if the legislature must act.
The 2011 gaming law appears to deny jobs, even those not on the casino floor, to people with a conviction for a felony, theft, fraud, or perjury in the last 10 years.
" Why would the legislature hold the CEOS of MGM and Wynn to the same licensing standard as an entry- level dishwasher," asked MGM Springfield President Mike Mathis as he argued that criminal record standar should not be applied to employees not directly involved in gaming or managing the casino operations.
He said MGM would substitute a more lenient standard for people hired to work in the hotel, restaurant, and other commercial spaces in the casino complex under construction in downtown Springfield.
" Vet candidates based on such factors as the seriousness of the crime, how it relates to the job being sought, and rehabilitation since the date of the crime, all of which MGM currently does," said Mathis.
The casinos were sold to Massachusetts voters as job generators that would help unemployed and under-employed people begin good-paying careers in an industry where higher levels of education or complex technical skills are not necessarily required.
Lawyers for MGM say the prohibition on hiring people with criminal records runs counter to Massachusetts being a so-called “ban-the-box” jurisdiction where employers are forbidden to ask about criminal convictions on job application forms. They said federal law forbids blanket restrictions on employment.
Mathis said the criminal records standard is simply unfair.
" Someone working in our bowling alley should not have a higher requirement than someone working in the bowling alley across the street," said Mathis.
Also arguing for a change in the rules was Rich Devine, the longtime director of employment programs with the Hampden County Sheriff’s Department, and Jafet Robles, a community organizer, who said a criminal conviction for drug dealing would bar him from working anywhere in the MGM Springfield casino.
" I am advocating for people in Springfield like myself -- those who have a criminal conviction on their record but are working hard to contribute positively to our families and communities," said Robles.
" I am asking the gaming commission to not force MGM to use criminal history of job applicants to screen them before even looking at their qualifications. It is wrong to dismiss people who are qualified simply because they made a mistake in the past."
MGM has pledged to hire 3,000 people with 35 percent of the employees being current Springfield residents.
Commissioner Gayle Cameron said she is sympathetic to MGM’s request, but believes the commission’s hands are tied.
" We're talking about a law," said Cameron.
The commissioners have resisted appeals to endorse changes in the six-year old gaming law.
House Speaker Robert DeLeo has said changes should not be considered until after the casinos are open and there’s been time to assess how the gaming law is working.