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More than 1,000 employees laid off by Navajo Nation Gaming Enterprise

Noel Lyn Smith
Farmington Daily Times
Navajo Nation Gaming Enterprise partnered with the tribe's census office to help tribal members complete the Census 2020 questionnaire on Sept. 19, 2020 at Northern Edge Casino in Upper Fruitland.

GALLUP — More than 1,000 workers under the Navajo Nation Gaming Enterprise started the new year with no employment due to the ongoing economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The enterprise announced in a press release that 1,120 employees would be temporarily laid off on Jan. 1. However, 165 workers will be retained to continue essential duties.

The tribe's casino operations in New Mexico and Arizona have been closed since March as a result of the pandemic.

"Due to the extended closure, since March 17, 2020, our business operations have been severely impacted and as a result, we must make very difficult financial and personnel decisions," Brian Parrish, the enterprise's interim CEO, said in the Dec. 31, 2020 release.

The release states that the enterprise repeatedly warned that if casinos did not reopen, even at reduced capacity, layoffs would occur.

"We remain focused on seeking every viable option to stabilize the salary and benefits of more than 1,000 Navajo families and to protect the $460 million investment the nation has made in gaming facilities and resources," Parrish said.

Enterprise officials have emphasized to Navajo leaders that permanent closure is imminent and such action would financially hurt the tribe.

A permanent closure would cost $460 million in the first year then approximately $219 million in subsequent years due to lost revenue from interest, taxes and the gaming distribution fund and income from business site leases, according to the release.

The digital billboard outside Fire Rock Casino near Gallup displays the casino's closure on May 18, 2020.

"The nation's vision took years to build, but the nation has been successful. If it allows its gaming industry to fail, a permanent closure will cause a long-term setback for Navajo economic development, even if it eventually reopens," board chairman Quincy Natay said.

Navajo leaders have supported the enterprise during the pandemic, including authorizing $24.6 million to the business from the amount the tribe received under the federal coronavirus aid bill.

The enterprise also received loans from the federal Paycheck Protection Program, according to U.S. Department of the Treasury records.

Fifteen delegates on the Navajo Nation Council supported a bill on Nov. 2 to reopen casinos under limited capacity and heightened restrictions.

The council resolution was vetoed on Nov. 13 by tribal President Jonathan Nez, who cited the need to keep the public safe.

"We fully understand the predicament of our gaming enterprise if the doors cannot open to the public, but we are not fully convinced the enterprise's safety measures will keep people safe," Nez wrote in his veto message to Speaker Seth Damon.

At the time, Nez proposed to meet with the speaker's office to examine alternatives for funding to help the enterprise's employees.

Nez reiterated the financial aid provided to gaming from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act during an interview on Dec. 31.

He also explained that he recommended to the council that the remaining amount of a $60 million aid package to businesses include the tribe's enterprises to help them through these trying times.

The president said his recommendation "didn't go anywhere" and the council is now receiving reports from the gaming enterprise to use supplemental funding to remain viable.

"Is it safe to open casinos right now? Ah, I don't think so — not at this point — but I did give them an option, but they never took that consideration," Nez said.

Delegate Jamie Henio sponsored legislation in December to override Nez's veto but Henio later withdrew his sponsorship, according to records from the legislative branch.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636 or by email at nsmith@daily-times.com.

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