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Union rep: Employees want their ideas to be heard before more Off-Track Betting parlors are closed

By Mike Pettinella

The labor relations agent for the employees union at Western Regional Off-Track Betting Corp. is calling for an “open and honest" conversation with management and the board of directors concerning the future of the public benefit company's brick-and-mortar OTB branches.

Antonella Rotilio. (photo at right), who attended Thursday’s board meeting at the Park Road facility but was not on the agenda to speak, said recent closings of OTB parlors have occurred without proper communication with the union, and a published report of more closings have branch employees worried that they will be losing their jobs.

“My number one concern is obviously for my members (employees). They had read a few weeks ago in article printed by The Batavian in which (WROTB President/Chief Executive Office) Henry (Wojtaszek) had stated that they were possibly going to be closing more branches. I believe it was five,” Rotilio said by telephone this morning.

“These employees are reading these articles. And they have to go to work. They have to work those jobs, and they just saw that another branch closed (the Phoenix branch in Oswego County was closed at the end of July). And all of them are afraid. This isn't a corporation where they come in and they're there a year and then leave. Some of our members -- a lot of our members of the branches -- have been there 30 years. So, this is a big thing. They've spent their entire adulthood in those branches. It's more than a job; it's their life.”

Rotilio represents workers through the United Professional & Service Employees Union Local 1222 at Batavia Downs Gaming and at eight OTB parlors throughout the corporation’s 15 counties and cities of Buffalo and Rochester.

She was referring to a story in The Batavian following the July board meeting, at which Wojtaszek said management’s plan is to reduce the number of OTB branches from the current eight to five by 2025. He said more emphasis is being placed on EZ Bet, which are self-betting terminals in existing bars and restaurants. WROTB has 27 EZ Bet locations across Western New York.

“When they read an article like that and see what’s happening, they’re nervous,” she added. “So, they thought is, why can't we have a conversation with the board and management because we work at the branches, and we handle the customers. I think a conversation that's open and honest and maybe gives options -- maybe listens to what the members have to say and the ideas that they have to maybe cut costs and keep the operation going – would make them feel like they had a little control over their future. To not know if tomorrow they're going to come into your shop and they say, ‘We're closing,’ is an awful feeling.”

They eight OTB branches are located in Williamsville, Cheektowaga, Auburn, Jamestown, Gates, Penfield, Tonawanda and Rochester. Twenty years or so ago, there were more than 30 branches scattered throughout WROTB’s 15 counties and cities of Buffalo and Rochester.

Rotilio said management and the board owes it to their employees to include them when considering short- and long-term plans for these locations. Instead, she contends, branch workers are hearing from customers about rumors of branch closings.

“Customers will come in and they're telling employees what they're hearing because there's some kind of attachment to either the corporation or someone who works at the corporation,” she said.  “It’s like months before an action is taken and the customer knows, while they employees are thinking, ‘Is this true?’ And the union is not told at all in advance what they’re going to do.”

She said employees at the Military Road branch in Niagara Falls were given 10 days’ notice.

“We were very upset about that, and we reached out to the corporation. And when Phoenix closed, they notified us after the fact,” she said. “That’s why I think meeting with us -- meeting with the members and having an honest conversation and looking at the numbers together – would have a positive impact because everybody is worried about their job.”

Rotilio acknowledged that the handles (revenues) vary at the different branches and said she realizes that the financials dictate company policy.

WROTB officials on Thursday reported that the branches, grouped in with intertrack wagering, Dial-A-Bet, EZ bet, online Batavia Bets and live racing, incurred year-to-date losses of about $600,000. That includes a book loss posted on the sale of the Military Road OTB branch in Niagara Falls.

Contacted this morning, Wojtaszek said that finances “are a big part” of the equation, but said the corporation needs to consider the employees as well.

“Our obligation is to make revenue and turn it over to the member communities,” he said. “To maximize revenue; to make sure that we do work with our employees. As I have said many times, we have the best employees in Western New York, we believe that.

“What will happen in the next few months is that we will discuss the branches and the situation with the various counties that currently have branches in them and find out what their intentions are. We will, obviously, we will include the workers, the employees within that discussion. We will let them know what’s going on. So, that’s certainly the plan.”

Wojtaszek said the COVID-19 pandemic “forced us to take a hard look at where we were going for the future and that’s when we put together the plan that we discussed a few months ago (to close three more branches by 2025).”

“But, certainly we should be discussing with the members of the board where those locations for the branches are and then we should be discussing with those employees, how it affects them. That is the plan.”

When asked if management knew which branches were earmarked for closing, Wojtaszek said the proposal wasn’t etched in stone, but is something that “we are continuously looking at.”

“It’s something that changes over a period of time, depending on the circumstances. If one of these branches are doing better, financially, it might not need to close, or if other circumstances change. But, at the time, it was based upon geography, where EZ Bets were relocated, and in the end, it's always going to be how are they doing financially?”

He said the corporation is not looking to totally eliminate the branches but has indicated that an emphasis is being placed on EZ Bet locations, which are housed in established businesses such as restaurants and/or bars.

Wojtaszek defended WROTB’s decision to close branches in recent months, noting that the corporation sustained losses for a long period of time.

“I think the moves that we have made over the last couple of years were warranted,” he said. “We don't want anybody to lose their jobs or employment. But we'll do what's necessary to make sure that the corporation remains strong. But again, we'll do that with the advice and input from the various board members and also we will speak with our employees as we make any moves going forward.”

He said there will, in fact, be the “open and honest” conversation that Rotilio is advocating.

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