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Edward Lea / Staff Photographer  

Ivenny Lopez, 43 and Adalberto “Bert” Lopez, the acting president of the Hispanic Alliance of Atlantic County, in his “Happy Place” in his house, which is his living room Friday Jan 11, 2019. Press of Atlantic City / Edward Lea Staff Photographer

Atlantic City housekeepers implore lawmakers to pass panic button bill

ATLANTIC CITY — Every day, resort housekeepers deal with guests who answer their doors naked, have porn playing on their laptops, physically assault and even rape them during the course of their shifts.

Three housekeepers say they, along with others in their union, are fighting for their safety and security by imploring lawmakers to pass a bill that would require hotels across the state to provide them with panic buttons.

“When you go and knock on the doors — you know, ‘Housekeeping,’” said Iris Sanchez, a housekeeper at Caesars Atlantic City, rapping her knuckles on the table, “you don’t know what you’re going to find on the other side.”

The state Senate and Assembly could vote on panic button legislation as soon as Thursday. It’s the next step in making the almost 2,000 housekeepers in the resort casinos feel safer by connecting them directly to security.

Many national hotel chains, such as Marriott, Hilton, Hyatt, IHG and Wyndham, already have vowed to provide personal safety devices by 2020 to all their employees who deal one-on-one with guests.

However, if the bill becomes law, New Jersey would be the first state to mandate them.

Representatives of Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa, Caesars Entertainment Corp. and Tropicana Atlantic City did not respond to requests for comment. The Casino Association of New Jersey declined to comment.

Sanchez, 40, of Pleasantville, has 20 years of experience working at properties in the resort. She described the scary and outlandish situations housekeepers deal with on a regular basis.

One of her coworkers, who was cleaning a bathroom with two guests inside the room, went to get towels out of her cart and discovered a woman lying on the floor naked with her legs in the air, she said.

The housekeeper was so scared she dropped the towels in the bathroom and ran out of the room.

Another time, a coworker opened a guest door after her knocks netted no response, and two pit bulls started wandering the hallway.

“She just ran. The only thing she could do was run,” Sanchez said. ”It just happens all the time. (Guests) have no respect for us as a worker.”

John Armato, D-Atlantic, introduced the bill in the Assembly in September, co-sponsored by his district mate, Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo, also a Democrat.

Armato said the bill is “long overdue” and will make housekeepers safer.

“We take housekeepers for granted sometimes,” he said. “You want to be safe when you go to work, and that’s what they want.”

Mazzeo said the stories he hears are “heart-wrenching,” and it’s up to lawmakers to make sure housekeepers are protected.

Miriam Ramos, who has worked for 25 years at Bally’s Atlantic City, said the most terrifying incident was when a housekeeper was raped last year.

The 64-year-old, of Pleasantville, who speaks Spanish, said through a translator that a guest had a domestic incident with his girlfriend and was arrested but came back the next day and asked a housekeeper to open a room.

The housekeeper denied his request, saying it was against the rules, but the man attacked her.

“As she was leaving the room, the guy pushed the cart out of the way and pushed her into the room,” Ramos said. “He punched her in the face and all over her body and raped her.”

Jamel Carlton, 32, of Saugerties, New York, was arrested after the incident and indicted on aggravated sexual assault and other charges in May.

But the arrest hasn’t made it easier for the housekeeper to return to work, Ramos said.

“Since then, my friend is not capable of going back to work,” she said. “She was traumatized.”

In another incident, a guest pulled a sheet over a housekeeper’s head and held a knife to her throat, said Daksha Parikh, a housekeeper with 16 years of experience in the resort.

“He told her, ‘I’m not going to kill you. Just do what I say,’ and she was just begging for her life,” the 62-year-old Egg Harbor Township woman said.

That housekeeper was able to get away, running into a closet to hide, Parikh said. She was bruised and bleeding from her thighs and arms.

If the bill is passed, the women said, they will finally feel like security is just a push away if they need them.

Currently, they have to find a phone and call a supervisor, who then calls security to respond if necessary, they said.

“It means that I’ll be able to come home safe,” Sanchez said. “That nothing is going to happen to me while I’m working. It means that I get to work eight hours and then go home.”

SJTA passes tiered incentive to lure carriers to Atlantic City International Airport

EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — The South Jersey Transportation Authority is again offering incentives to try to attract another airline to Atlantic City International Airport.

The authority is offering tiered marketing incentives of $25,000 to $140,000 to draw airlines to the region. Spirit Airlines is the airport’s only carrier.

Bob McDevitt, an SJTA commissioner since 2008, said that while there have been several versions of incentives over the years, this package was much more general and not directed at any specific airline.

“The more seats you provide to and from, the more money you get for marketing, and the more passengers you put on the plane, the more times you get an additional incentive,” he said, adding it’s structured more on performance as opposed to giving money to get access.

Previous attempts to provide subsidies to airlines have had minimal success. In the past, airlines lured to ACY by subsidies have stayed just as long as they were contracted to or even pulled out early.

But the new incentives are tiered depending on the number of seats a carrier can provide and then sell in one year, he explained.

For example, for domestic flights with 3,000 to 5,999 seats per year, the carrier would get $25,000 in marketing incentive. The tiers increase up to more than 27,000 seats per year, which would earn the carrier $125,000 in marketing incentive and $5 per passenger who returns through the airport for domestic flights.

The incentive is higher for international flights, with the first tier earning $40,000 in marketing and the top tier earning $140,000 with $5 per passenger who returns through the airport.

While the incentive is structured for one year, there is an option to renew for a second.

“It’s one of the most underutilized international airports in the country, and anything that would drum up interest and business in here ... I’m in favor of,” Atlantic County Executive Dennis Levinson said. ”We most certainly want to see a very busy, viable airport.”

He said a busy airport will have a ripple effect through the county, benefiting everyone.

“We have to showcase Atlantic City to bring in year-round traffic,” he said. “It’s not just for the casino operators, it’s for the people that work in the casinos themselves, people that work in Atlantic City.”

SJTA Commissioner James “Sonny” McCullough said the authority has been working for years to encourage other airlines to provide service to the airport.

“The problem is this, an airline looks at a location for what it’s going to cost them to operate at that location, but, primarily, they look at what is the customer base in a geographic area,” he said. “When you go 12 miles east of the airport, all you have is fish, and fish don’t fly.”

In 2015, SJTA incentives convinced Air Canada to start service between Atlantic City and Toronto, but the airline dropped its route after that summer.

United Airlines began flying to Atlantic City from its Chicago and Houston hubs on April 1, 2014.

On Dec. 3, 2014, the last United flight landed at the airport. At the time, United officials said they ended service because demand didn’t meet its expectations. The SJTA did not seek repayment of more than $100,000 in marketing incentives from United, which was supposed to stay at the airport at least a year, out of fear it would hurt its ability to draw airlines to ACY in the future, state officials said at the time.

Other airlines that have backed out of ACY include Continental, US Airways, Delta, Northwest, WestJet, AirTran and even President Donald Trump’s ill-fated Trump Shuttle.

Now that the resolution passed, the authority will reach out to airlines, bring them to the area and encourage them to set up shop in the airport, he said.

If the incentives work, it would bring new customers to the area, not just for the airport but “a tremendous boost for the convention business,” McCullough said.

According to the SJTA December monthly report, total scheduled service passengers to ACY were up 5.8 percent from 2018 to 2017 with 1,058,379 passengers in 2018 up from 1,000,230 in 2017.

Politicians spar over Code Blue, but some are happy to sleep inside

MIDDLE TOWNSHIP — In the cavernous family center of Cape Community Church, a few people gather around folding tables, sipping soup and hot coffee.

The outside temperature is in the 20s. Inside the main hall does not seem much warmer, but those gathered will sleep in smaller rooms, with the heat on 70.

This is a Code Blue night, designated to keep people who have nowhere else to go from freezing to death or suffering cold-related injuries.

January saw the start of a new policy shifting the responsibility for sheltering the homeless on such nights from Cape May County to individual municipalities. It also saw nights in which the mercury plummeted to the single digits, while disagreements over Code Blue heated up, with criticism back and forth among officials at the state, county and municipal levels.

A Code Blue is called when temperatures drop below 25 degrees, or below 32 if there is rain, snow or other precipitation. For years, the county offered vouchers for motel stays on the coldest nights.

The county continues to offer vouchers to families with children, but as of Jan. 1, it no longer offers vouchers to individuals, said Freeholder Director Gerald Thornton.

After the first Code Blue under the new policy, Thornton called the system a success. It wasn’t perfect, he said, but it worked.

“Nobody was cold,” he said.

Still, the change has proved controversial.

This month, state Sen. Bob Andrzejczak and Assemblyman Bruce Land, D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, said counties should take an active role in Code Blue protections, calling out the all-Republican Cape May County board.

In response, Thornton said the state’s Code Blue legislation was a mandate without funding and added that Andrzejczak had been invited to the county’s meetings with municipalities but did not attend.

“We invite other elected officials to engage in the exchange of ideas going forward in a way that can help people and not just to score political points,” Thornton wrote.

Thornton expressed disappointment that some communities have decided to use lobbies of police stations as warming centers, where there are few amenities and some may be reluctant to go, especially those facing warrants.

Several towns have decided to use their police lobbies, including Wildwood, although advocates advised against it.

Wildwood Mayor Ernie Troiano had little patience for the issue.

“You know what? Have Cape May County build a shelter,” he said.

The police lobby is staffed at all times through the winter, Troiano said, unlike any other building in his city. He also dismissed the concern that some may be being unwilling to seek help from police.

“If it’s a warrant for a traffic ticket, nobody’s going to do anything,” he said. “If the guy’s got a federal warrant and he’s a murderer, then he’s going to get picked up, yeah. Then he gets three hots and a cot.”

Nighttime refuge

Things are quieter at Middle Township’s warming center on Route 9.

Many of those gathered at the church sleep in the woods on other nights, in a series of encampments around Rio Grande. Each night brings worries about other people, about police, about animals like raccoons and coyotes, about the cold, about much more, said David Rahn, one of the men at the warming center Jan. 22.

“I’m a nervous wreck the whole time I’m out there,” Rahn said.

Rahn said he’d been camping as a kid but did not realize how difficult it would be to spend a winter in a tent.

“This is my first time. I’ve never been homeless,” Rahn said.

In the woods, he bunks with Bill Lapworth, who had a larger tent. Lapworth said he was born and raised in Wildwood, where his grandmother had a business. He picks up construction work and other jobs where he can, but a felony conviction from years ago makes it tough to find steady work.

“I made a mistake,” he said, adding he did his time and wants a fresh start. “I didn’t kill anybody.”

Lapworth spent much of his day at The Branches, an outreach center on Route 47 in Rio Grande.

He said he won’t stay in Wildwood, where he said he was treated like a dog, with nowhere to lay down for the night in the police lobby. On the night he spoke, he would have a cot in a warm room, a hot dinner of soup and bread and a hot breakfast in the morning.

Middle sees the most business

Middle Township Mayor Tim Donohue said everyone is learning as they go.

“We’re in the heart of the winter now. This is an evolutionary process. The county’s being flexible, we’re being flexible,” Donohue said. “We’re going to learn a lot this winter.”

Middle Township is close to a full house each Code Blue night. Capacity could become an issue, Donohue said. The center maxes out at 12 people. The township has the lobbies of the Police Department and the substation in Rio Grande and could take overflow to Lower Township if need be.

When Code Blue is called, the center opens at 6 p.m., and everybody must leave by 6 a.m. The Branches then opens at 6 a.m. and stays open for 12 hours.

“If we weren’t here, they’d be out in the cold at 6 o’clock in the morning,” said Branches Director Sandra Lockheart. An outreach of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Stone Harbor, The Branches has been in operation for at least a decade, she said.

Like others, she said the new Code Blue system has improved.

“I think it was a little rough at first, but it seems to be working pretty well right now,” she said.

How Atlantic City found money to propose pay stipends for employees

ATLANTIC CITY — Multiple mayoral administrations missed out on getting a proper return on investment from the city’s bank accounts, and new financial services will provide additional revenue for the cash-strapped resort.

The details of the mismanaged banking services began to emerge following a news conference in November during which Council President Marty Small Sr. proposed giving city employees annual stipends to compensate for salaries that are below average for similar work in other municipalities across the state.

In announcing the three-year stipend proposal — which has not been approved by the state and city — Small said an interest-bearing account held by the city had been renegotiated and would begin paying out a monthly return equal to its previous annual payout. The new banking agreement will net the city about $1.68 million in additional revenue.

The state Department of Community Affairs, which assumed direct oversight of the nearly bankrupt seaside resort in late 2016, said that after tackling major financial issues, such as casino tax appeals, casino-payment-in-lieu-of-taxes agreements and addressing deferred pension and health benefit obligations, it turned its attention to the city’s day-to-day fiscal operations and found the underperforming accounts.

“It was during this review that we observed the city — across multiple mayoral administrations — had more bank accounts than were needed, resulting in the city not getting the best banking services that it could,” according to a statement from the state agency.

The state directed the city’s chief financial officer, Michael Stinson, to issue a request for proposals for banking services to “generate competition among banks for the city’s business,” the state said.

The RFP was published in May, and sealed proposals were reviewed in June. Two months later, City Council approved a resolution canceling certain bank accounts.

In November, the state published an advertisement for a chief financial officer in Atlantic City after a decision was made by the state not to renew Stinson’s expiring contract, which ended Dec. 31.

Stinson, who doubled as director of revenue and finance, had been with the city since 2010. At council’s reorganization meeting, Toro Aboderin, who was the CFO in Ventnor, was approved.

Small said an account with TD Bank had previously been paying the city $153,000 annually at a rate of 1.85 percent. The new account will reportedly pay the city $153,000 on a monthly basis with an annual interest rate of 2.25 percent.

“As a result of the RFP, the city was able to negotiate favorable terms and conditions and a higher fixed-rate return on its available cash balances and ultimately consolidated its multiple bank accounts into one account with TD Bank,” according to a DCA spokesperson. “It is undetermined how much money the city could have potentially earned during these years had it maximized its investment potential.”