Army veteran says firing at NC casino was retaliation for OSHA complaint
The Charlotte Observer February 7, 2022
CHEROKEE, N.C. (Tribune News Service) — Trey Peterson loved his job as a table-game dealer at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort in the N.C. mountains.
“When you sat at my table” to play baccarat, blackjack, three-card poker and other games, “you were family,” he said.
In each of his five years at the casino, he ranked in the top 1% for performance among 3,500 casino employees, he said. He so enjoyed the work that he never took a vacation, and always arrived early despite the hour drive from his native Asheville.
“Zero write-ups,” the 31-year-old Peterson said.
After eight years struggling as an Army veteran with PTSD, a condition he described in part as like being combat-ready 24/7, he finally felt “I belonged. I felt like a contributing member of society.”
Then came the late night of Feb. 7, 2021, which would cost him and his wife their casino jobs and result in a federal safety citation against the casino, he said.
At 11:30 that night, a boiler-plant malfunction on the casino grounds spewed dangerously hot steam, triggering an ear-splitting alarm throughout the casino, Peterson said. Over the intercom system, all guests and workers were ordered to evacuate, he said.
His supervisor told game dealers to stay put and keep dealing, Peterson wrote in a complaint to casino management the day after the incident. He also filed an anonymous whistleblower complaint with the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, records show.
A casino spokeswoman declined a request by the Observer this week to comment about the incident, the resulting OSHA fine and Peterson and his wife’s firings.
“As this is an ongoing legal matter, we will not comment,” casino spokeswoman Kelci Coker said in an email.
News of Peterson’s complaint against the casino and his assertion he was fired out of retaliation was first reported by Fox 46 Queen City News.
After the alarm sounded, Peterson told the Observer, hundreds of employees and guests were funneled through the casino front doors. For years, construction on the casino grounds blocked the designated employee emergency exit, he said.
Evacuation action plans hadn’t been updated in years, he said, and evacuation maps posted in the casino were likewise years out of date.
Peterson said he filed the complaints only after he sat down with his manager to discuss his concerns. The manager told him the evacuation went smoothly and nothing was wrong with the casino’s emergency plans, he said.
Acting on Peterson’s complaint, OSHA cited Harrah’s in August for failing to conduct regular employee evacuation drills, but didn’t fine the casino, according to the citation notice by Kim Morton, OSHA area director based in Raleigh.
The agency cited the casino after two site inspections, OSHA spokeswoman Erika Ruthman told the Observer.
“It’s vindication,” Peterson said of the citation, but he’s still considering a lawsuit in hopes of getting his and his pregnant wife’s jobs back.
Tips at the casino table
Peterson said the couple was fired for what the casino manual considers a minor infraction — his wife, Deborah, a beverage server, accepting tips from players at his table.
Deborah Peterson was assigned to another area, and servers are allowed to accept tips only from players in their areas, according to the manual.
Peterson provided a copy of the manual to the Observer that shows the infraction is considered to be minor.
Players tipping servers not assigned to their game tables was common throughout the casino during his years there, Peterson said.
When he chatted with players at his table about his wife, who is from the Philippines, some would go out of their way to find and tip her, or give her a tip when she passed nearby, he said.
In a July letter to OSHA’s regional whistleblower protection office in Atlanta, a lawyer for the casino denied that Peterson and his wife were fired because of his complaint to OSHA. Two incidents led to their firings, casino lawyer Matt Aiazzi wrote.
Peterson provided the Observer a copy of Aiazzi’s letter to OSHA.
On April 16, according to the letter, casino surveillance showed Deborah Patterson at her husband’s table receiving “an unspecified amount of red ($5) chips from a female patron in spite of not providing any service to that patron.”
Peterson’s wife “should not have been physically present at the table,” the lawyer wrote.
On April 18, the letter continued, surveillance revealed a female patron at Trey Peterson’s baccarat table giving his wife $80 in chips that were considered tips.
Once terminated, the couple denied wrongdoing and requested a peer review board look at their case, according to Aiazzi’s letter. The board sided with the casino, Aiazzi wrote.
Trey Peterson’s termination notice, reviewed by the Observer, said he was being dismissed for failure “to use professional judgment.”
Peterson said he’d never been cited before in his years at the casino, and still, even if he committed the infraction the company claimed he did, it’s not considered termination-worthy in the company manual, he said.
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