“Blanche the Singing Bartender” could serve drinks and belt out tunes all at the same time, without missing a beat or spilling a drop.
Showcasing her talents, Resorts Casino Hotel made the multitasking Blanche Morro one of the centerpieces of its entertainment scene when the new owners took over the property in late 2010.
Now, Morro’s singing voice is silent. Her relationship with Resorts has disintegrated into a lawsuit that claims the casino eliminated her job after she complained about unsafe workplace conditions that harmed her vocal cords.
Morro, 48, of Egg Harbor Township, said she has no doubts that it was retaliation by Resorts.
“Absolutely,” she said. “There was no other reason.”
Michelle Douglass, a Northfield attorney representing Morro, characterized Resorts’ action as tantamount to firing Morro.
“I think it’s one and the same thing,” Douglass said.
The lawsuit, filed last week in state Superior Court, alleges Resorts retaliated against Morro after she filed a workplace complaint, a worker’s compensation claim and a union grievance.
Resorts denied the allegations. Spokeswoman Courtney Birmingham said Morro remains a Resorts employee, but noted she is out on medical leave.
“Although the singing bartender position was eliminated, Ms. Morro was not terminated,” Birmingham said in a statement. “In fact, she exercised her right to bid on another bartending position at Resorts.”
The decision to eliminate Morro’s position was done because the casino simply wants to go in another direction for its entertainment lineup, Birmingham said.
Earlier this year, Resorts was given a $35 million facelift that transformed a large part of Atlantic City’s oldest casino into a Margaritaville-themed attraction in partnership with singer-songwriter Jimmy Buffett.
The casino’s old 25 Hours bar, where Morro was featured as “Blanche the Singing Bartender,” will be rebranded as part of the entertainment overhaul, Birmingham said.
Morro’s style of singing at the same time that she mixes drinks made her an icon of the local entertainment scene and gave her some national exposure, including an appearance on the “Rosie O’Donnell Show” in 1998.
She would read lips to take orders from customers while singing along to an instrumental accompaniment. She would also use written notes and hand gestures to communicate with customers midtune.
Dennis Gomes, Resorts’ former co-owner and chief executive officer, made Morro a featured performer when he and New York real estate mogul Morris Bailey bought the casino in December 2010. Previously, Morro had also worked as a singing bartender at Tropicana Casino and Resort when Gomes served as that property’s chief executive.
Gomes died in February 2012 of complications from kidney dialysis. Morro sang at his memorial service. After Gomes’ death, Bailey brought in the Connecticut-based Mohegan Sun to operate Resorts and also partnered with Buffett for the Margaritaville makeover. With Gomes no longer alive, Morro fell out of favor with Resorts’ management, Douglass maintained.
“Since Dennis Gomes died, the decision makers are not very receptive to Blanche,” Douglass said.
Morro is currently out on medical leave from Resorts. She said the removal of old carpeting that coincided with work on the Margaritaville project kicked up dust and debris that damaged her vocal cords, leaving her unable to sing.
She was diagnosed with post-nasal drip, a sinus infection and allergic rhinitis. One doctor told her that her symptoms mimicked an asthma attack, possibly in reaction to material in the old carpeting, according to her lawsuit.
“It started with my lungs. I was having a hard time breathing on the casino floor,” Morro said. “I was coughing and had sinus headaches. My vocal cords were very, very red and irritated.”
In late April, Morro complained to the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration about the carpet removal, saying Resorts had failed to take measures to protect workers from unsafe conditions that could cause respiratory problems. Prior to that, she had complained to her supervisors, the lawsuit said.
On June 1, she was notified by Resorts that her position as the singing bartender was being eliminated. She said she was told of the job cut only a few days after the death of her sister, Tammy Suarez.
“They had sent flowers to the funeral, so they knew,” Morro said of Resorts.
Birmingham disputed any links between the OSHA complaint and the decision to eliminate Morro’s job.
“As to her allegations regarding the OSHA complaint, the identity of OSHA complainants is never revealed to the employer in order to protect those involved. Consistent with this practice, Resorts was not made aware of the fact that Ms. Morro was the person who filed the OSHA complaint until after the singing bartender position was eliminated,” Birmingham said.
Leni Fortson, an OSHA spokeswoman, confirmed that a workplace complaint had been filed against Resorts, but declined to identify who made it. She said Resorts responded to the complaint of unsafe work conditions and “corrected the situation.”
Douglass argued that Resorts’ decision to eliminate Morro’s job was clearly in retaliation for the OSHA complaint.
“There’s no doubt about it. The timing was remarkable. It speaks volumes,” Douglass said. “What they’re really doing is forcing her out the door.”
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