ATLANTIC CITY - Elsa Hernandez choked back tears as she described the humiliation she said was caused by her firing at Resorts Casino Hotel, where she had worked for nearly 12 years.
"I feel used, and I feel that I have been thrown out like a piece of trash," said Hernandez, a 57-year-old grandmother who lives in Pleasantville.
Hernandez and eight other middle-aged former cocktail servers at Resorts filed a discrimination lawsuit Tuesday against the casino, claiming they were fired in March to make way for younger, sexier women who would look good in skimpy costumes.
In March, two other discrimination suits were filed in state Superior Court by 46 former cocktail servers who alleged they were also fired because they supposedly did not appear sexy enough in Resorts' new Roaring '20s outfits.
Los Angeles celebrity attorney Gloria Allred, who represents the nine women in the newest suit, held a Boardwalk press conference Tuesday in front of Resorts to denounce casino owner Dennis Gomes for alleged age and gender discrimination.
Allred said the women were fired because they did not meet the image that Gomes perceived as the "ideal feminine body type."
"We allege in our lawsuit that the defendants, including Dennis Gomes, undertook a plan to change the makeup of the group of female cocktail servers to ensure that as a group the cocktail servers were younger, slimmer, sexier and more conforming to a stereotype of feminine beauty," Allred said while surrounded by the plaintiffs.
Denying any wrongdoing, Resorts released a statement that defended its hiring and firing practices. The statement was similar to the one that Resorts issued in March following the first round of lawsuits.
"Resorts is confident that it has acted in accordance with all legal requirements in its employment decisions," the statement said. "As we indicated before, cocktail servers were given individual consideration and the selection process was conducted in a fair and objective manner. We empathize with the cocktail servers who lost their jobs and gave them hiring preference in other open positions at Resorts. Some took advantage of this offer and some did not."
The litigation stems from Resorts' rebranding into a new Roaring '20s theme, including having cocktail servers dress up in revealing costumes reminiscent of the sexy outfits worn by the Prohibition-era flapper girls.
Allred said the older women were required to go through auditions that were really "sham evaluations" for the cocktail server jobs. During the auditions, the women allegedly had to wear costumes that were too small and were forced to pose in unflattering ways that emphasized body fat.
"The plaintiffs contend that the true reason that they were fired was because of their age and/or because they did not meet the stereotype of youthful feminine sexiness desired by the defendants," Allred said.
Hernandez said she has gone through emotional and financial turmoil since losing her job. Without an income, she is no longer able to help support her five grandchildren, she added.
"This decision by Resorts has ruined my life," Hernandez said. "I don't know how I can get another job. I have always used part of my salary to care for grandchildren, who need my help."
Another fired cocktail server, Margaret DePamphilis, worked for Resorts for 32 years. She said she was in a state of shock after she was let go, feeling that "I did nothing to deserve this."
"I feel betrayed, sad, angry, hurt and I am emotionally devastated," said DePamphilis, 54, of Northfield.
Marie Stewart, another fired cocktail server, noted that she helped to train the younger waitresses who ultimately replaced her.
"We trained the new hires for 90 days and on the 90th day I received a phone call that I was fired because I didn't meet the uniform requirements," said Stewart, 66, of Margate.
Other plaintiffs include Leanne Martina, 51, of Somers Point; Yvonne Ray, 49, of Brigantine; Janie Burton, 39, of Atlantic City; Rode de la Cruz, 40, of Pleasantville; Karen Mulkey, 47, of Egg Harbor Township; and Dorrie Fitzgerald, 53, of Brigantine.
In hiring Allred, the women have retained an attorney known for her high-profile clients, headline-grabbing cases and frequent TV appearances. Allred made a name for herself early in her career in the 1970s by successfully suing the then all-male Friars Club in Beverly Hills, Calif., for discrimination. The suit was filed by a woman who was denied membership in the club based on her sex.
Allred said the Resorts suit underscores what is a growing trend of discrimination against women in the casino industry and other occupations across the country. Although she did not provide specifics, she said she has been contacted by casino employees in other states about alleged discrimination.
In a jab at Resorts, she urged customers to take their business to Atlantic City's 10 other casino hotels.
"I would go to a casino that is not in the business of hurting women," Allred said.
Mary Cesarano, 73, a Resorts customer from Sewell, Gloucester County, said she is aware of the lawsuit and would likely support the former cocktail servers by boycotting Resorts in the future.
"That would really influence me in coming back here," Cesarano said.
Al Alessy, 70, a longtime Resorts customer from New York City, praised Gomes for making changes designed to revive the financially struggling casino. He said he didn't care whether older cocktail servers have been replaced by younger women.
"What difference does it make to someone who's gambling?" Alessy said.
Contact Donald Wittkowski: