<> Industry veteran manages needs of 1,000-person Rivers workforce in Schenectady | The Daily Gazette
 

Subscriber login

Business

Industry veteran manages needs of 1,000-person Rivers workforce in Schenectady

Outlook

Industry veteran manages needs of 1,000-person Rivers workforce in Schenectady

Kate McMahon also leads community outreach for casino
Industry veteran manages needs of 1,000-person Rivers workforce in Schenectady
Kate McMahon is shown at Rivers Casino & Resort, where she is vice president of human resources.
Photographer: John Cropley

SCHENECTADY — In her nearly 20 years in the casino industry, Kate McMahon has worked every Thanksgiving except one. 

The vice president of human resources and community relations at Rivers Casino & Resort took the holiday off in 2016 because the casino was not yet open. 

When it is open, she or a member of her team is on site 24 hours a day, every day. And on holidays, or other busy days, there’s an all-hands-on-deck approach. She’s OK with that.

“I like to find that as unique — I have 100, 200 people to spend Thanksgiving with,” McMahon said. “And then I still get to go celebrate with my family on a different day.”

The heart of McMahon’s role at the waterfront casino and hotel is maintaining a workforce of more than 1,000 people, but she also is in charge of their wardrobe as well as their engagement (and the casino's) with the surrounding community. Additionally, she must keep everyone in compliance with the state regulatory and licensure system that governs the casino and its workers.

“The compliance aspect of your gaming license is wrapped up in human resources,” McMahon said. “We walk all the current employees and new employees through the process. There’s a lot of paperwork.”

Making it all run smoothly protects the integrity and security of the facility, as well the significant sums of money on site.

LONGTIME RECRUITER

McMahon, 48, a Chicago native, has worked her whole career in human resources, first for UPS, then for Caesars Entertainment, then Rush Street, parent of Rivers Casino. Early on, out of necessity, she became a specialist in high-volume recruitment — the massive UPS hub on Chicago’s outskirts has a permanent workforce of thousands and a seasonal workforce of thousands more.

That served her well when she transitioned to casinos, which have large workforces and, like the hospitality industry as a whole, have steady employee turnover. There’s a lot of hiring to do and a lot of human resources to manage.

UPS had another important similarity to casinos, McMahon said: “We were 24 hours a day there, so it was on all shifts there, too.”

Otherwise, the industries are as different as one might expect.        

“UPS is not an entertainment organization. I think that’s one of the big differences,” McMahon said. “It was really about production. Now we have to train people that this is a fun and exciting place to be, so let’s have fun and excitement at work. I think that’s a big piece of the difference.”

McMahon moved from UPS to the Harrah’s casino in St. Louis in 2002 after UPS offered her a buyout. She came to Rush Street’s Des Plaines, Illinois, casino in 2010 at the behest of the same executive who’d recruited her to St. Louis, who had by then moved to Rush Street.

More from Outlook 2020

She rose through the ranks to upper management at Des Plaines, then was offered the executive role in 2016 at the new facility Rush Street was building in Schenectady.

Her appreciation for Rush Street, which stood by her during a difficult time in her life, and her commitment to the job are such that she was happy to take the position, though the Schenectady location posed some challenges: Her wife and in-laws needed to remain in Chicago, where the Spanish-language medical and social services required by the elderly couple were in place, along with a large Latino community.

“They couldn’t transition up here to New York, so I commute to Chicago,” McMahon said.

She’s on the plane home every other week or so. 

Less frequently, her wife Laura comes to New York to see her, if she can arrange respite care for her mother. (Her father recently died after a long battle with Alzheimer's and related medical problems.)

Being able to support her family is immensely important to McMahon. The fear that she wouldn’t be able to continue to do so was one of the worst parts of a monthslong medical crisis that could have been life-ending, but was only life-changing.

McMahon said Rush Street’s support during the entire episode, and the assurance that her job would be waiting for her when she was back on her feet, forms the basis of her relationship with the company now. It also informs her interaction with current employees and job candidates.

“I thought my life was over,” McMahon recalled. “I did have a strong enough recovery, but it’s something I will be faced with the whole time. What I don’t have anymore is the fear that I can’t take care of my family, at least at this time, and that’s very moving to me.

“I can share that when other people come to human resources and they come in with problems. … How can we guide them through?”

McMahon particularly recalls supportive text messages from Rush Street Chairman Neil Bluhm when she was trying to walk again.

“To share that with other team members that struggle, to say ‘We all have things that we don’t know about each other, but let me tell you how we can help you,’ that’s something that’s special to me.”

McMahon also loves her position for a simpler reason: It's gratifying to be able to give jobs to so many people.

CHALLENGES OF THE JOB

And there are a lot of people to hire.

The workforce at Rivers varies between 1,050 and 1,100, and there’s a steady turnover. Hiring and retaining staff in a tight labor market is a frequent challenge in the hospitality industry, and Rivers is no exception, despite offering better wages on average than most other hospitality employers.

“I wouldn’t say [turnover is] any higher than any other hospitality industry, but we have an industry that isn’t as well-known in the state of New York,” McMahon said. “So that’s part of the challenge. We had to educate people on what is this industry and who are we, and what our culture is. Sometimes that can create compatibility and sometimes it doesn’t. But people are curious and want to try it out.”

The culture is not for everyone, nor are the overnight and holiday shifts. 

So some Rivers employees quit. Others don’t meet standards and are fired, which is a less enjoyable duty for McMahon.

“When you work in a tight environment where you’re rules-regulated, unfortunately, separation of employment can happen,” she said.

However, departures are more often due to employees deciding that the casino isn’t the career path they want, she added, “and that’s OK.”

McMahon has 10 people working for her in human resources, three in wardrobe and one in community relations. This last unit coordinates volunteer work by casino employees within the community, and arranges support by the casino itself for local charities, whether through meals at food pantries or construction with Habitat for Humanity or fundraising.

Along with recruiting workers for the casino, McMahon and the human resources team help build them, because qualified job candidates are sometimes in short supply. Rivers works with the Schenectady SEAT Center, Schenectady Community Action Program and YouthBuild to prepare young adults to enter the workforce. It's an effort that benefits both the community and the casino itself.

“I think that was one area we’ve been able to partner and take advantage of being a participant in,” McMahon said. 

“We are in a tight labor market. We are also in a labor market of underserved possible candidates, and that goes with workforce development and training.”

She added: “I think that’s a unique thing that keeps me up at night, is making sure that we can staff our organization but then once they’re here, what kind of opportunity can we provide so that they can see that there is either well-placed stability or a future? Because they want more.”

More from Outlook 2020

Rivers faces human resources challenges similar to those at most other large organizations, McMahon said, but community outreach and involvement have helped it overcome some of those obstacles and compete against other employers for job candidates.

“There’s a great connection, and I think that has enabled us to bring in a workforce where people have our name at top of their mind,” she said.

Rush Street’s casino properties are in distinctly different communities — suburban Chicago, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Schenectady — so another task facing McMahon is creating a workplace culture tailored to upstate New York.

“You have to build that culture once you’re here,” she said. “You can’t just take your book and bring it here. We change it as we go.”

View Comments
Hide Comments
0 premium 1 premium 2 premium 3 premium article articles remaining SUBSCRIBE TODAY
Thank you for reading. You have reached your 30-day premium content limit.
Continue to enjoy Daily Gazette premium content by becoming a subscriber or if you are a current print subscriber activate your online access.