Working for Pennies in Paradise: US Expats in Costa Rican Sportsbooks

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Working for Pennies in Paradise: US Expats in Costa Rican Sportsbooks

Hordes of tourists fly into Costa Rica every day for the pristine beaches, virgin rain forests, active volcanoes, drugs, women, parties – well you get the idea. There’s something about the lifestyle here that’s addicting, and it’s not just the cocaine. But, inevitably, real life beckons and freshly suntanned visitors return to jobs, families, and responsibilities at home.

Yet some don’t want the vacation to end. They come with open-ended tickets and then look for work locally when savings run low. The problem is, foreigners need a special visa to work legally in the country, and there are already plenty of well-qualified locals eager for jobs. But there is one industry that’s usually willing to turn a blind eye in order to hire some English speaking, sports loving Americans: online sportsbooks.

Online gambling mecca

Costa Rica is one of the largest hubs for online gaming operators in the world. From sports to poker to casinos, hundreds of web-based gambling sites have found a home here due to tax incentives and a low-cost, well-educated workforce. The industry is legal in Costa Rica but lies in a gray area in the United States and has been a topic of recent debate. Just last year the US Government effectively shut down two of the largest online poker sites, and it continually plays cat and mouse with online sportsbooks by freezing funds and making it difficult to process payments.

For many football loving Americans, the thought of living in beautiful Costa Rica and working in the gambling industry sounds like an amazing opportunity – a dream job even. But the reality can be far different. Those that sign on to work do so under the table and are usually relegated to low level positions, toiling long hours for very little pay. The average sportsbook customer service rep makes around $5 an hour and deals with some of the most atrocious customer abuses that could only come from grumpy gamblers.

During high season, from the start of college football in August to the end of March Madness, employees work 12 hour days, six days a week. When things calm down in April many are let go.

In the sales department you can make a little more with commission, around $2,000 a month total, calling inactive customers and offering bonuses to come back and make a deposit. Americans are often utilized for these positions for their fluent English and knowledge of sports, but making cold calls to gamblers with empty balances all day is draining and the schedule no less exhausting.

Ironically, Americans are the undocumented, exploited workers in this scenario. And since they are paid under the table, they don’t receive health insurance, severance, or the yearly Christmas bonus to which legal workers are entitled.

Party like a rockstar

Of course, life in Costa Rica does have its perks: the beaches, surfing, and rainforest are all still there, and most expats take full advantage of them. Then there’s the nightlife. There is no shortage of casinos, clubs, strip joints, massage parlors, bars, brothels – you name it. There is a pervasive party culture here fueled by cheap liquor and easy access to hard drugs. Cocaine is ubiquitous and extraordinarily cheap. Simply ask one of the taxi drivers parked outside any bar, and you can have a gram of it delivered to you in minutes for around $20.

Needless to say, drug and alcohol abuse is common and even encouraged among sportsbook employees. Indeed, you might find that your boss has stayed out partying even later than you did. Or you might be called into his office not to be disciplined but to share a line of coke to help you power through your hangover. This is a unique atmosphere to say the least. Here every day is casual Friday.

The owners of these companies are typically Americans that aren’t squeamish about bending the law. While bookmaking has historically been dominated by the mafia, most Costa Rican based sportsbook owners aren’t directly connected to organized crime.

Most of them will tell you that they operate in a legal gray area but won’t set foot in the United States for fear of arrest, if they haven’t been indicted already. It may be just as well. In Costa Rica they have built their empires and become extraordinarily wealthy in the process.

You can spot them in areas like Escazú, Costa Rica’s most fashionable district, in bulletproof Range Rovers often flanked by bodyguards and high-priced hookers. They own multimillion dollar houses, yachts, helicopters, and treat the country as their playground. The only time most of their employees will enjoy this kind of extravagance is at the company Christmas party.

Jason Hicks from Denver, Colorado is one of the many Americans who came to Costa Rica, fell in love with the country and ended up finding a job at a sportsbook. After years of hard work, he had moved on to a lucrative position at an online poker site (with a work visa) just when the Department of Justice unsealed indictments against the company’s founders and he was let go.

After the online poker collapse, Jason was left with a choice of moving back to the states or going back to work at an online sportsbook. He chose the latter, but the long hours and low pay began to take its toll, and he started questioning whether this is what he wanted to do. “I just couldn’t handle it anymore, working six days a week, dealing with the stuff we deal with for that kind of pay, it’s just not worth it.”

A couple of months ago he decided to quit and is contemplating his next move. “If there’s an opportunity to be had here I’ll take it,” he says, “but decent gaming jobs are getting really scarce. It might be time to move back.” It’s starting to look more and more like the extended vacation has finally come to an end.

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