JACKPOT, Nev. Its possible for Magic Valley residents to escape the areas infamously low wages without permanently leaving their homes.
At any given time, Cactus Petes in Jackpot, Nev., has 35 to 40 job openings, all of which pay at least $1 more an hour than Idahos minimum wage, said Kris Ann Brown, Cactus Petes spokeswoman. Thats because Nevadas minimum wage is $8.25; Idahos is $7.25.
Six 48,000-pound buses connect hundreds of Southern Idahoans with that opportunity. Each seating 55, the buses drive more than 600 miles a day, making round trips with stops between Jackpot located about 45 miles south of Twin Falls and the Magic Valley seven days a week.
Aaron Kennedy rises every workday at 6:30 a.m. to catch the Cactus Petes bus at 8:10. He works as a housekeeping inspector at the casino. And if it werent for the ride, Kennedy said, he would not have a job.
Its amazing how the economy drives your life, he said. The bus has been very valuable to me. I wouldnt be able to afford (the job) without the bus, no way. When I got my interview, it was a killer just to drive out there.
Of the casinos 580 employees, 311 live in the Magic Valley. Among them, 66 percent are paid $11 an hour or less. The option to pay $60 a month for a bus pass, instead of $60 per tank of gas, makes the commute affordable.
The transportation is nice, but at the same time, everybody is underpaid in Idaho, Kennedy said. Thats what forces us to get jobs in other places survival. Its just what youve got to do.
Twin Falls resident Sherry Zaun broke her hand three years ago. She said that eliminated most job prospects. If not for the commuter bus, Zaun said, she would be without work. Zaun said its odd that she couldnt find a job in Idaho but found one 50 miles away as a housekeeper.
I applied for everything I could think of in Twin Falls, she said. Its hard. Its a good thing I dont have small children at home.
Not only service workers ride the bus. Cory Ballew, a Cactus Petes security operations manager, said the bus was the selling point when he was being recruited.
Its part of every conversation we have when were recruiting or hiring people, Ballew said. We make sure we discuss the bus options.
Kevin Reiman, casino operations manager, and beverage server Kayti Garey said they make twice as much money at Cactus Petes as they would doing similar work in Twin Falls.
I have a 2002 car I bought new that has just more than 100,000 miles on it, Reiman said. We make good money, and we enjoy our jobs.
And the buses just keep running most of the time.
If theres a blizzard like today, Garey said on Jan. 9, we dont have to worry about the weather.
Its not just about the money. I appreciate our guests. Im seven months pregnant, and these ladies just made blankets for my baby. Casino guests always give us gifts.
But the three-hour daily ride can take a toll, Zaun said, especially when its late.
Its a pain in the butt. Youre away from home for like 12 hours per day. If the bus breaks down, then youre stuck, and you dont get to work, she said.
Workers scrambled Jan. 9 through the slanted snow in a parking lot at the College of Southern Idaho, where the bus stops. They piled into various vehicles after they heard the bus had a flat tire.
Cactus Petes doesnt compensate workers for missed time.
A lot of the guys at CSI, the reason why they left is because they knew this storm was going to hit, Kennedy said. Because by the time they get to work, all chaos is going to break out.
Despite the hardships that can come with the lengthy commute, Brown said, it gives Idahoans an incentive to work in Jackpot.
Its certainly another option for team members, she said. Its something to consider when considering employment.