Area officials find fault with Plainridge Park Casino audit

Originally published for The Sun Chronicle on Nov. 25, 2016. 

The state auditor has faulted Plainridge Park Casino for not living up to a license agreement to hire 90 percent of its workers from Plainville and surrounding towns, but a labor expert and even town officials say that’s probably unrealistic – if not impossible.

Among other factors, area unemployment is at a record low, and has been relatively low since the slot machine parlor opened in June 2015.

As a condition of its license, Plainridge pledged to hire 90 percent of its workforce from Plainville, where the casino is located, and surrounding towns including Mansfield, Foxboro, Wrentham and North Attleboro.

A state audit released Monday, however, found that the casino has fallen well short of that goal, hiring only 36 percent of its roughly 500 employees from Plainville and surrounding communities.

State Auditor Suzanne Bump also took the state Gaming Commission to task for not forcing Plainridge to adhere to the agreement.

“Gaming was established in Massachusetts to create jobs and economic benefits for local communities, and our state as a whole,” Bump said in a statement. “Not only is Plainridge Casino falling far short of the job creation promises made to the people of the state, but the Massachusetts Gaming Commission is not taking action to ensure they meet their committments.”

However, Alan Clayton-Matthews, an associate professor of economics at Northeastern University, said that with unemployment so low in the Attleboro area, a local workforce goal of 90 percent “doesn’t seem plausible.”

Data released this week by the Massachusetts Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development reported that an additional 2,300 jobs have been created in Attleboro area over the past year, pulling area unemployment in surrounding communities to below 3 percent.

Plainville unemployment was 2.1 percent in October. In North Attleboro, it was 2.5 percent; and in Mansfield, it was 2.4 percent.

For Plainridge to comply with the licensing agreement, some 450 employees would have to come from Plainville and surrounding towns, a tall order in a relatively small geographic area with low unemployment, Clayton-Matthews said.

“It seems highly unlikely that they could find 450 qualified residents who are unemployed to fill those spots,” he said. “Especially, with that small of a labor force. You would have to attract people from other fields to do that.”

He also noted that workforce quotas in general often are hard to meet. For years, Boston has tried unsuccessfully to require city employees to live in the city.

“It’s not working there, and that’s a big city,” Clayton-Matthews said.

Plainridge said in response to the auditor’s report that 77 percent of its employees are from Massachusetts, and Plainridge Vice President and General Manager said the casino is committed to hiring locally.

“Our aim is to maximize employment opportunities for the region and the commonwealth,” he said. “We have worked diligently and aggressively toward those objectives.”

Plainridge also said 14 percent of its staff was from ethnic minority groups, exceeding a 10 percent benchmark set in the license agreement.

Some local officials say they understand the difficulty Plainridge might have in meeting local employment goals.

North Attleboro Selectman Paul Belham echoed the challenges businesses face when making hiring commitments, and said he believes Plainridge made an effort to hire locally, but might not have succeeded for many reasons.

“Being a business owner myself, I don’t blame them,” he said. “There are a bunch of factors that may have played out here – they may not have had quality people applying or maybe people didn’t pass a background check.

“If I say I’m going to hire 10 people from North Attleboro, but nine of them who apply aren’t qualified, it means I can’t follow through with that commitment.

“I’m not trying to defend them,” Belham said. “But there’s got to be a reason why they couldn’t follow through.”

Mansfield town Manager Bill Ross said he doesn’t see employment at Plainridge as a major concern for his town.

“I know we have a few folks who are working there part-time,” he said.

Plainville selectmen Chairman George Sutherland noted that the hiring numbers quoted by the state auditor’s report were for a period before the casino opened, and that conditions likely have changed since then.

Hiring goals set for the casino were a matter between the casino and the state, he said.

“We support them making as many local hires as they can,” he said.

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