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Mass unemployment filing starts for thousands of laid-off Atlantic City casino workers

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The Trump Plaza Hotel Casino is illuminated at night early Tuesday, Sept. 2, 2014, in Atlantic City, N.J. Trump Plaza received final state approval Tuesday to close on Sept. 16, 2014. Atlantic City, which started the year with 12 casinos, will have eight by mid-September. Revel, which closed Tuesday, was the second Atlantic City casino to shut down over Labor Day weekend, joining the Showboat, which closed its doors Sunday. The Atlantic Club closed in January. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)

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The Trump Plaza Hotel Casino is illuminated at night early Tuesday, Sept. 2, 2014, in Atlantic City, N.J. Trump Plaza received final state approval Tuesday to close on Sept. 16, 2014. Atlantic City, which started the year with 12 casinos, will have eight by mid-September. Revel, which closed Tuesday, was the second Atlantic City casino to shut down over Labor Day weekend, joining the Showboat, which closed its doors Sunday. The Atlantic Club closed in January. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. - Hundreds of newly laid-off casino workers began filing for unemployment Wednesday morning, the first attendees at an assistance centre that expects to process 5,000 workers over the next three days.

The session at the Atlantic City Convention Center came after a brutal weekend that saw more than 5,000 employees at the closed Showboat and Revel lose their jobs. Officials from the state Department of Labor and the main casino workers' union, Local 54 of Unite-HERE, helped displaced workers file for unemployment, and gave them information on signing up for health insurance and other benefits.

By mid-September, Atlantic City, which started the year with 12 casinos, will be down to eight, and almost 8,000 people will be out of work. Trump Plaza is closing Sept. 16, and the Atlantic Club shut down in January.

"It's really depressing," said Dale Browne, who worked as a housekeeper at Showboat for 14 years and suddenly finds herself without a job. "You have all these people out of work now. Nobody knows where their next paycheque is coming from. People have mortgages, kids in school. We're afraid the crime rate is going to go up. I want to say we'll be all right down the road, but right now, it's rough."

Ruth Ann Joyce and her husband Michael were hired together as bartenders at Showboat when it opened in March 1987, raising a family on their casino jobs.

"We had good jobs," she said. "We made good money. We had great benefits. We worked hard and we were rewarded for it. For the past 27 years, we had the American dream. This closing is a tragedy and it didn't have to happen."

The state Department of Labor had 40 workers helping applicants register for unemployment, and connect with job search resources. Other social service agencies helped enrol them for health insurance, and food assistance.

"They don't want to collect unemployment," said Bob McDevitt, president of Local 54 of the Unite-HERE union, which organized the worker assistance centre. "They just want to get to their next job."

The casino consolidation buffeting Atlantic City is a reaction to the ever-increasing competition from casinos in neighbouring states, including Pennsylvania, New York, Maryland and Connecticut. Atlantic City's casino revenue has fallen from a high of $5.2 billion in 2006, when the first Pennsylvania casino opened, to $2.86 billion last year.

Casino analysts and industry executives say the closings are a needed correction to an oversaturated market, and predict that the remaining eight casinos will do better financially with less competition.

But big-picture economics was not on the minds of those who turned out for the unemployment session Wednesday. Ronnie Downing, a laid-off Revel worker, said he and his co-workers were shocked when it closed.

"Many of us, myself included, haven't figured out what we're going to do next," he said.

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Wayne Parry can be reached at http://twitter.com/WayneParryAC

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