Editor's note: The Trump Taj Mahal closed its doors once and for all in October, leaving nearly 3,000 employees permanently out of work, including Valerie McMorris. She worked as a cocktail waitress at the Atlantic City casino for 26 years, and is a Unite Here Local 54 union leader. She shared her story exclusively with Refinery29. The views expressed here are her own.
The smell of expensive perfume and hairspray was intoxicating. Women in 5-inch heels and full-length furs surrounded me. It was 1989, Atlantic City was booming, and I was standing in a long line at the Trump World’s Fair, one of Trump’s lesser-known casino acquisitions. I had come with one goal: to score a highly coveted job as a cocktail waitress at the Trump Taj Mahal.
I was an eager 20-year-old college junior, born and raised in South Jersey, clad in spotless white Keds, a cotton tee, and a new pair of Gap jeans. I immediately felt out of place amidst the other women who had come for this job. Their glitz and glamour was palpable, a combination of club attire, teased hair, bright red lips, and false eyelashes.
We found ourselves in this sea of beauty, seeking the promise of greatness that the opening of the Trump Taj Mahal would bring to Atlantic City. Touted as the "eighth wonder of the world," the $1 billion project that Trump was undertaking would provide 5,000 people the opportunity of comfortable middle-class jobs. It was the fulfillment of the promise that had allowed gaming to come to Atlantic City back in 1976.
Donald Trump had already established quite the reputation as a gambling connoisseur. His first casino, the Trump Plaza, was a boardwalk gem. It had opened in 1984, and was a den of golden glitz that attracted high rollers from all corners of the globe. Trump’s Castle was next to come onto the scene in 1985. Overabundance and opulence oozed amidst the smell of money and cigarette smoke from the crowds of gamblers on the inside, while million-dollar yachts adorned the docks at the Trump Marina outside.
By the time the Taj Mahal was getting ready to open, Trump had established a reputation as a hands-on boss who cared about his employees. We heard that Trump's employees were well-kept, well-fed, and appreciated.
That was just part of the reason that I was chomping at the bit to land this cocktail waitress job at the newest Trump property. The media and Trump himself had said the Taj would be the greatest casino in the world. I truly believed that.
The job interview was a crapshoot. For every 30 women who auditioned, only one would make it. We stood arranged in groups of 25, wearing bathing suits and high heels. In what felt like a preview of Trump’s future Miss Universe pageant franchise, we met individually on the World’s Fair stage with a panel of interviewers who instructed us to strut, smile, and pretend to serve drinks.
On stage, there was an empty table, a tray, several empty glasses, and some napkins. It isn't brain surgery, I told myself. I grabbed the tray, loaded it up with the tools of the trade, and with my biggest smile and peacock strut, mock-served the men in front of me. The top interview question I was asked was: "Why do you want a job at the Trump Taj Mahal?" My response was simple, and well received in the ego-driven Trump world. "Because I want to work for Donald Trump, who promises this will be the greatest casino in the world," I replied with a smile.
I nailed the interview. I landed the job. A Mailgram arrived, telling me my base salary would be $3.54 an hour. But everyone knew the tips would be how we made our money. Life was great. Now, at 21, I had health care, an employer who contributed to my pension, and the ability to live on my own and pay my college expenses in cash. Money was everywhere back then.
Trump employees were made to feel special, like a family, and we enjoyed countless perks: elegant holiday parties, gifts, generous Christmas bonuses, and performance awards. Our cafeteria was stocked with five-star cuisine we could enjoy for free while on our breaks. Uniforms — or “costumes” as they were called at the Taj — were well-made, unique, and laundered by the company. The building was immaculate and pristine, polished and maintained hourly by a large staff of what the casino called "environmental attendants."
We all knew that Donald Trump was a regular visitor. One evening in 2009, I was working one of the craps pits when I was summoned to wait on a table of high rollers. We had learned over the years what the mere mention of "high rollers" in your station meant. Those words triggered not only giddy excitement as to whom it could be; they also usually translated into bigger tips. I made my way over to their table.
This time, I was met by Donald Trump himself, who was standing behind a group of friends rolling the dice. I greeted him confidently. He flattered me, saying he remembered meeting me years before, and that I had aged well. We chatted about the casino business. I told him I thought our uniforms weren't comfortable or flattering, and he promised he'd look into it.
His friends ordered a few drinks, and Trump ordered a bottle of water from his own Trump Ice line. When I returned with their order, Trump reached into his pocket and placed a $50 bill on my tray. At the time, his graciousness felt so genuine, and he had backed it up with a nice tip. Wow, I thought to myself, Trump truly must value his employees. Later, he updated our uniforms, as well.
But as the years went by, our owner’s financial woes grew. We lived through three of Trump's bankruptcies. The perks disappeared. The food in the cafeteria became sullen and stale. Our costumes lost their uniqueness and were shoddily made. I first knew we were in trouble when the employee bathrooms were restocked with one-ply toilet tissue that was nearly see-through, and clearly a downgrade from the two-ply paper we had enjoyed for the first 20 years.
For 20 years, vacation time had been three full weeks. Then it went down to 7.5 days. After 2004, we received zero raises and lost our paid personal days. Then, in 2014, when I had been on the job for 24 years, we were stripped of our health care, pension and severance contribution, and paid breaks.
Those cuts hit us all hard. Before, I had been able to provide health insurance for my family. Now, I had to find another way, to the tune of $700 per month. My personal income plummeted by 40%. Suddenly, my family and I were living in poverty. Surely, this wasn't the glitz and glamour I signed up for when I signed up to work for Trump. And our jobs were no longer the upstanding, middle-class ones Trump had promised to bring to Atlantic City.
Now, 26 years later, I look back and reflect on my personal journey and Trump’s promise of greatness. I see now that the opulence and glamour were all just bait. His rhetoric was supported by majestic surroundings, but they were financed through junk bonds. The profits that Donald Trump enjoyed were not reinvested in the building or the employees. They were shipped back up to the shore to Wall Street. That casino money flowed right out of Atlantic City and into the coffers of the billionaire hedge fund owners.
Like the rest of America, I'm watching as Trump stands on the precipice of what he hopes will be his next big personal success. He's promising America the same thing he promised Atlantic City.
I'm remembering the excitement and anticipation of that 20-year-old girl, standing on that stage among hundreds of perfumed and decorated women. We were promised decent jobs and golden futures. But in the past 26 years, I have personally lived through Trump's economy. Mine was one of the middle-class jobs Trump created, then subsequently destroyed.
When Trump promises jobs in the future, I don't believe him. I know, from experience, that they will be the same working-poor jobs he created for me in Atlantic City.
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