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Navajo Nation enterprises seek funds to cover obligations, employee payroll

Noel Lyn Smith
Farmington Daily Times

FARMINGTON — A new bill proposes $34.1 million in supplemental funding to help six Navajo Nation enterprises that are struggling to meet financial obligations and avoid the layoff of employees due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The bill proposes to appropriate the amount from the Unreserved Undesignated Fund Balance to the enterprises because each one continues to be financially impacted due to public health emergency orders that reduce operations and services.

According to the bill, the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority is requesting $7.8 million to cover hazard pay for 808 employees.

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Bartender Savanah Smiley tends to customers on Jan. 20, 2016 inside the bar at Northern Edge Casino in Upper Fruitland. The Navajo Nation Gaming Enterprise is seeking funding to cover wages and other costs due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Navajo Nation Shopping Centers Inc. is requesting $903,541 to enhance safety at its locations and to cover hazard and special duty pay for employees.

The Navajo Engineering and Construction Authority is requesting $6.9 million to cover hazard pay for employees.

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Navajo Nation Hospitality Enterprise is requesting $1.4 million for employee pay while the Navajo Arts and Crafts Enterprise is requesting $2 million to maintain payroll for its employees.

The bulk of the funding request is going to the Navajo Nation Gaming Enterprise at $15 million, which will be used to replenish the casino treasury – or "cage" – as well as cover payroll, health care coverage for 1,100 employees, fixed operating expenses and expenses related to reopening the four facilities.

Hostess and cashier Calandra Begay serves a customer on Jan. 20, 2016 at Northern Edge Casino in Upper Fruitland. The Navajo Nation Gaming Enterprise is seeking funding to cover wages and other costs due to the coronavirus pandemic.

A document attached to the legislation states the enterprise has "fully exhausted" its capital set aside, funding from the federal Paycheck Protection Program and the allocation from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act to maintain operations and employees since the March 17, 2020 closure of its four casinos.

Brian Parrish, interim CEO of the gaming enterprise, told the Resources and Development Committee on Feb. 3 that 1,120 employees remain temporarily laid off and that status will continue until funding is available.

If no funding is secured, then the employees would be permanently let go.

"Recovery of the enterprise really starts with reopening," Parrish said adding that a portion of the $15 million would go toward costs to reopen the casinos.

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He added that a review by the enterprise found that patrons are now going to casinos that have resumed operations near Albuquerque and Phoenix.

If the bill is approved by the Navajo Nation Council and enacted by tribal President Jonathan Nez, then the enterprise could rehire employees by Feb. 22.

"They do not have to reapply for their positions. They will be fully reinstated with their regular pay once they're able to return," Parrish said.

This is the second version of the bill.

During the council's winter session, Delegate Jamie Henio attempted to have the council consider this matter as an emergency legislation but failed to receive enough support for it to be placed on the agenda.

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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