ASHLEY SMITH • TIMES-NEWS Esma Kodric, left, who has worked at Cactus Pete's for 12 years, takes a nap on the bus ride while Maria Lopez reads on Thursday, Jan. 9 2014 in Jackpot, Nev. Employee's pay $2 each way to ride the bus.

JACKPOT, Nev. • Magic Valley residents can escape the area’s 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 Idaho’s minimum wage, said Kris Ann Brown, Cactus Petes spokeswoman. That’s because Nevada’s minimum wage is $8.25; Idaho’s is $7.25.

A 48,000-pound, roaring 60 series Detroit bus connects hundreds of Idahoans with that opportunity. Six buses, each seating 55 passengers, drive more than 600 miles a day, making round trips with stops between Jackpot 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 Vegas-style casino. If it weren’t for the ride, Kennedy said, he would not have a job.

“It’s amazing how the economy drives your life,” he said. “The bus has been very valuable to me. I wouldn’t 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.”

Kennedy is one of about 200 Cactus Petes employees who rely on the bus, Brown said.

Of the casino’s 580 employees, 311 live in the Magic Valley. Among the Magic Valley workers, 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. “That’s what forces us to get jobs in other places. …survival. It’s just what you’ve got to do.”

Indeed, only Puerto Rico pays a lower average gross income than Idaho, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports.

Sherry Zaun of Twin Falls broke her hand three years ago. She said that eliminated most job prospects. If not for the commuter bus, Zaun said, she would still be without work. Zaun said it’s ironic that she couldn’t 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. “It’s hard. It’s a good thing I don’t have small children at home.”

Not only service industry workers ride the bus.

Cory Ballew, Cactus Petes security operations manager, said the bus was the selling point when he was being recruited.

“It’s part of every conversation we have when we’re 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.”

“If there’s a blizzard like today,” Garey said Jan. 9, “we don’t have to worry about the weather. It’s not just about the money. I appreciate our guests. I’m 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 it’s late.

“It’s a pain in the butt. You’re away from home for like 12 hours per day. If the bus breaks down, then you’re stuck, and you don’t get to work.”

Workers scrambled Jan. 9 through the slanted snow in a parking lot at the College of Southern Idaho. They piled into various vehicles after they heard the bus had a flat tire.

Cactus Petes doesn’t compensate workers for missed time if the bus is late.

“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.

“It’s certainly another option for team members,” she said. “It’s something to consider when considering employment. Because of the distance of travel, it’s nice that the company gives us options.”

Buses leave CSI at 12:30, 5:30 and 8:30 a.m. and at 1:30, 4:30 and 9:30 p.m. Tickets are $2.

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