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Navajo Nation Gaming Enterprise seeks CARES Act dollars to help laid off casino workers


Noel Lyn Smith   | Farmington Daily Times
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FARMINGTON — The Navajo Nation Gaming Enterprise has temporarily laid off approximately 900 employees from casino operations in New Mexico and Arizona.

Brian Parrish, interim CEO for the enterprise, said another 140 employees will be affected starting Aug. 4.

"Nobody's employment has been terminated. Nobody's job has been eliminated. None of those things has occurred," Parrish said in a telephone interview on July 29.

Northern Edge Casino in Upper Fruitland, Flowing Water Casino in Hogback, Fire Rock Casino near Gallup and Twin Arrows Casino Resort near Flagstaff, Arizona, have been closed since March 17 because of the coronavirus.

Since then, the enterprise has used cash reserves to pay employees and to cover other expenses, Parrish said.

U.S. Department of the Treasury records show the enterprise received loans from the federal Paycheck Protection Program as well.

The same day employees were laid off, the Navajo Nation Council amended a bill to provide $24.6 million to the enterprise from the $714 million the tribe received from the federal coronavirus relief bill.

If the amount is approved by the council and by Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez, the enterprise would use it to cover benefits, fixed expenses and COVID-19 related medical and emergency expenses and return employees to administrative leave with pay.

The money would help the enterprise for at least 15 weeks, Parrish said.

Council delegates voted 19 in favor and four opposed to include the enterprise in the overall proposal to use the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act.

Those who supported the amendment cited the need to help casino employees, many of whom are the sole income earner for families.

"My main concern is saving those jobs," Delegate Paul Begay said.

MORE: Navajo Nation Council's CARES Act spending passage gets line-item veto

Other delegates expressed concern over the enterprise's financial responsibility and noted this was not the first time the enterprise was seeking help from the tribe's leadership.

"We've done interest rate reduction on what their loan is, we've invested in all kinds of other ancillary operations. … But the main aspect, the real items that would bring back money to the Navajo Nation, that hasn't occurred," Delegate Daniel E. Tso said.

The council has yet to vote on the bill — Legislation No. 0144-20 — because it was tabled late in the night on July 28. The council will discuss it further during a special session on July 30 and July 31.

The legislation proposes an overall expenditure plan to use $712 million from the CARES Act to fund water, power line and broadband projects in addition to solid waste projects, solar power units, assisting health care facilities, hardship assistance, a parks and recreation expenditure plan, payroll support for tribal employees and funding to the Dineh Chamber of Commerce to help small businesses.

MORE: Waiting for water: On the Navajo Nation, long lines, scarce resources, a cry for solutions

President Nez has a separate proposal for spending approximately $652 million from the CARES Act fund.

His proposal, which was outlined in a press release on July 28, includes providing more than $22 million to the enterprise.

The president and the council spent about six hours discussing his proposal during the special session on July 28.

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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