When Kathryn Felici was told that she and other cocktail waitresses at Resorts Casino Hotel were to pose for photos in skimpy new flapper costumes, she thought it was to evaluate the sexy black outfits to make sure they fit and looked right.
What the women didn't know, she said, was that the photo shoot would determine which of them would still have jobs when the 10-minute encounter was over.
Felici, who had been with Resorts since the day it opened in 1978 and was twice named employee of the month, was one of 15 cocktail waitresses fired last month from Resorts.
The stated reason, they say, was for "violating uniform standards." The real reason, they suspect, is that management wanted to get rid of older women who were judged not sexy enough to fit in with the new image the casino is trying to project.
Seven of the fired waitresses are suing Resorts, claiming age and sex discrimination. The others, including Felici, are considering legal action.
"It was very degrading to women," said Felici, 53. "I feel they never gave me a chance. We had no idea that photo shoot was fighting for our jobs."
Resorts said it gave each employee a fair evaluation and said the costumes are an integral part of its rebranding effort. The casino has adopted a roaring '20s theme after the popularity of the hit HBO series "Boardwalk Empire," based on Prohibition-era Atlantic City's reputation as the vice capital of the East Coast.
"A critical aspect of theming is the new costumes front-line employees will be wearing, including the new cocktail server costume," Resorts spokeswoman Courtney Birmingham said. "This particular cocktail server costume was chosen as part of the larger plan to unveil the new Resorts Casino Hotel as a destination for fun, excitement and a one-of-a-kind experience."
The costumes include short, skin-revealing black dresses with deep open backs. Waitresses also wear fishnet stockings and ornate Jazz Age hats.
"All cocktail servers were given individual consideration and the selection process was conducted in a fair and objective manner," Birmingham said. "We empathize with the cocktail servers who lost their jobs and gave them hiring preference in other open positions at Resorts. Some took advantage of this offer and some did not."
Attorney Kevin Costello, who represents seven of the laid-off servers, said the firings came about after Dennis Gomes, the casino's co-owner, was in a baccarat pit one night and saw a waitress he considered overweight serving drinks to gamblers.
"It was deeply humiliating for these friendly, capable, experienced cocktail servers, many of whom support families, to be judged not on how well they do their job, how friendly they are and how good they are with drink orders, but on how old they look and what shape they are," he said. "This is not 1955. A good cocktail server should be allowed to do the job at any age and any shape as long as they're good at it."
This is not the first time an Atlantic City casino's treatment of its female beverage servers has led to litigation.
In 2008, two former cocktail servers at the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa settled a multimillion-dollar sex discrimination lawsuit they brought against the casino. They claimed the casino humiliated costumed waitresses _ known as "Borgata Babes" _ by imposing weight limits, encouraging breast augmentation surgery and emphasizing looks over job performance.
In the Resorts case, Felici told of a late February photo shoot that was so stressful it made her break out in hives as she struggled to put on a costume that fit properly.
She said each of the women who had to be photographed was made to enter a small changing room with the only light coming from a small window above. It was so dark that a small mirror was nearly useless. Costumes were strewn about the floor, and she and others had to kneel or crawl around to try to find a costume to wear.
"I was forced to get undressed in front of six co-workers, one of them being my manager," she said. "I had no top on because you can't wear a bra with the uniform. I had stockings on, but that's it. It was the most embarrassing thing I've ever had to do."
The costumes' sizes were not marked. The first one she tried on was too big, she said. The second one, which she eventually wore, gave no support to her bosom.
"I did not feel I looked very good in it," Felici said. "I was very nervous. I broke out in hives as I was walking out onto the floor. I was losing it, I was stressing so much."
The photographer told her she was not allowed to pose. Rather, he took pictures from three angles: with her facing forward, backward, and from the side. The photos were shot from the neck-down, with Felici holding a sign with a number on it that would identify her once the photos were evaluated.
Although it did not happen to her, she said some co-workers were told to spread their legs a bit or to turn their rear ends toward the camera.
"It's hard to believe that in this day and age women are still put through this," she said. "I'm a good employee. I did my job well; many managers have told me that. I just don't understand this. I'm still in shock.
"I understand that cocktail-serving projects sex appeal. You have to be pleasant and radiate a party atmosphere," Felici said. "I get that. I've done it for nearly 33 years. If it's all about what men want, well, men like all different kinds of shapes and sizes."