ATLANTIC CITY - Onegdu Gomez was among the 850 newly out-of-work casino workers who came Wednesday morning to the opening of the Atlantic City Unite Here Center at the Atlantic City Convention Center.
She left as pleased as she could be, given that she had lost her job three days ago.
"They fixed everything," Gomez, who lives in Pleasantville, said of her experience signing up for unemployment benefits. She worked as a housekeeper at Showboat for eight years and said she intended to look for another job in the same field.
In addition to helping Gomez and other displaced workers sign up for unemployment benefits (in nine languages), the union and 35 representatives of the New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development were connecting them with other financial and social services.
The opening of the center, which will operate from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. through Sept 10, marked the beginning of a concerted effort to aid the 5,700 people who have or will lose their jobs in the city's battered casino industry, which is seeing Showboat, Revel and Trump Plaza close in a span of less than three weeks.
"We're going to do everything we can to help them," state Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) said in an interview outside the fourth-floor meeting room where former casino workers were getting help.
Sweeney and other New Jersey officials face a significant challenge in the region's weak economy. The state department of labor recently predicted that the number of jobs in Atlantic County would increase by just 3,850 between 2012 and 2022, far fewer than the number of jobs disappearing from casinos. That gain amounts to a 2.8 percent increase, the lowest projected growth among the New Jersey's seven southernmost counties.
An additional 1,600 jobs were lost in Atlantic City when the Atlantic Club closed in January.
Preparing workers for new fields and making them more competitive for retail and hospitality jobs is central to the state's strategy, said Catherine Starghill, director of workforce field services for the labor department.
Starghill said New Jersey had applied for a national emergency grant to help workers prepare for new jobs, such as those at a new Amazon distribution center in Mercer County.
"We are looking to provide very intensive training," she said.
State representatives also are contacting people when they apply for unemployment compensation to let them know that grants of up to $4,000 are available for job training, Starghill said.
But not everyone at Wednesday's event was looking to leave casino work behind.
Two friends who worked in housekeeping at Revel said they intended to look for similar jobs at another casino because they like the work, the benefits, and the teamwork that go with the jobs.
"We work there tension-free," said Jignasha R. Shah, 45, of Galloway, who had worked at Revel since it opened. It was her first casino job.
After signing up for unemployment benefits, Shah and friend Ranjitsihn Rana, 56, also of Galloway, went to an Atlantic City Electric table to see whether they could get some relief from electric bills while on unemployment.
Theresa Volpe, who has been in the industry for 35 years, working as a cocktail waitress at Trump Plaza for the last 26, won't lose her job until Sept. 16, but she came Wednesday to help the union and to get information on food stamps and assistance that will be available for utility and mortgage payments.
She also had plenty to say to Sweeney - about deed restrictions on casino properties, benefits for casino workers, and discussions of a possible casino in the Meadowlands - when she came face-to-face with the lawmaker.
The only satisfaction she came away with was that state officials are working on extended unemployment benefits.
Volpe called it "sickening" that so many casinos were shutting down in such a short period of time.
"If they wanted to do what they did," she said, "scatter it out in six-month intervals or something."