As Casinos Reopen In Las Vegas, Stakes Are High And Union Calls For Transparency

17 hours ago
Originally published on June 3, 2020 7:14 pm

For the last two and half months, Gladis Blanco has been out of a job.

Blanco has worked in housekeeping at the Bellagio Resort and Casino in Las Vegas for the last eight years. She has mixed feelings about going back to work.

Her unemployment benefits have not yet kicked in. So she's been living off her savings since being furloughed in mid-March. As the sole provider for her two children, she's eager to start collecting a paycheck again. But she's also concerned that heading back to the Bellagio will place her on the frontlines of the coronavirus pandemic when tourists begin to return to the city's hotels and casinos on June 4.

"People will come from everywhere," she said. "And we don't know whether they're going to be sick or not."

Blanco is one of the many Las Vegas workers now weighing the risks of returning to work in one of the country's entertainment and hospitality capitals. Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak announced last week that some hotels and casinos would be permitted to reopen their doors on Thursday under Phase 2 of the state's COVID-19 response.

The economic shutdown has left more than 300,000 people in Clark County unemployed, according to the Nevada Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation.

"This is much deeper than the Great Recession because we've had no revenue coming in," said Clark County Commissioner Marilyn Kirkpatrick, one of the primary local officials who oversees the Vegas Strip.

The iconic 4-mile stretch in Las Vegas falls outside city limits, which places it under the jurisdiction of Clark County. It's home to the top 100 employers in the state and its closure has resulted in a $1.1 billion loss for the county government, Kirkpatrick said.

Despite the economic blow, Kirkpatrick said public health remains her top priority. She supports a gradual reopening of the Strip on the grounds that Nevada has seen a month-long decline in new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, and now has the capacity to test 10,000 people per day.

Kirkpatrick also pointed to strict requirements from the state's Gaming Control Board that require hotels and casinos to submit detailed COVID-19 mitigation plans at least seven days before reopening. In her view, employers have gone above and beyond to ensure that employees and guests will be able to return to their establishments safely.

John Flynn, the vice president of administration at MGM Resorts International, echoed that sentiment.

"It's a little bit of an artform," he said during a tour of the Bellagio late last week. "But we think that a lot of the safety mechanisms that we've put in place are absolutely the right direction and the right things to do."

A different look

The changes are apparent upon entering the lobby, where freshly printed signage and floor markers remind guests to practice social distancing, and a new QR reader stands at the ready for contactless check-ins.

Maximum capacity is capped at 50%, Flynn said, so half of all the slot machines and tables on the casino floor have been roped off. Those that are open have been outfitted with Bellagio-branded plexiglass panels to separate guests from casino staff and separate guests from each other. At the base of these barriers are small slots where players and dealers can exchange cards and chips while secluded in their own spaces.

Flyn pointed out that poker chips will be disinfected every time they leave the table and cards will be regularly replaced. Attendants will walk the floor, ready to disinfect any surface upon request. And handwashing stations are now interspersed amidst the slot machines and games of baccarat and roulette.

Flynn said that all employees and guests will have their temperatures checked upon arrival — and that any worker with a fever or a symptom of COVID-19 will be sent home and receive what he described as "appropriate compensation."

When asked how enforcement would be carried out, Flynn pointed to inspectors from the state's gaming control board.

"When people look at our industry here, [they don't realize] it is very highly regulated," he said. "We are rule followers. When new rules are set out, we're going to follow them."

But labor leaders like Geoconda Argüello-Kline want to see those rules spelled out more clearly.

Argüello-Kline is the secretary-treasurer of the Culinary Workers Union Local 226, which is one of the most powerful unions in the state. She says their 60,000 members want to see hotels and casinos make their full COVID-19 mitigation plans available to the public, rather than the partial plans that have been released so far.

The union is also calling for hotels and casinos to regularly test 100% of their employees, whom they argue have become frontline workers.

Even with a complete shutdown of the Strip, 15 culinary union workers and their family members have died of COVID-19, Argüello-Kline said, adding that it's not worth opening businesses if one more worker's life is put at risk.

"The government here is not putting the worker's life as a priority," she said. "They want to come back to work, but they want to come back safe."

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SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

Hotels and casinos in Las Vegas plan to reopen tomorrow. Closures in mid-March at the start of the pandemic left hundreds of thousands in the area unemployed. From member station KUER, David Fuchs reports that workers there are conflicted. They want to start collecting paychecks, but not at the expense of their health.

DAVID FUCHS, BYLINE: For the last 2 1/2 months, Bellagio housekeeper Gladis Blanco has been out of a job.

GLADIS BLANCO: I'm still struggling with unemployment. And I'm - been using my saving for now, but that is going to end.

FUCHS: In the meantime, she's helping fellow members of the Culinary Workers Union Local 226 get tested for COVID-19. Blanco is the sole caretaker for her two children, so they're eager for her to get her job back. But they all know it could come with risks.

BLANCO: My daughter - she's kind of more, like, worried about it because they know that I do housekeeping. And they know, you know, we have contact with a lot of guests.

FUCHS: Guests that could come from all over the country and beyond. They could bring more cases of COVID-19 from outside Nevada and, as the union is arguing, put workers' lives at risk. With 60,000 members, it's a powerful political force in this state. And its leaders are calling for casinos and hotels to release their full COVID-19 mitigation plans to the public and implement additional safety measures before opening their doors.

JOHN FLYNN: So we just walked in through the rotating doors here at Bellagio in Las Vegas.

FUCHS: MGM Resorts vice president John Flynn points out everything they're doing to make sure guests can still enjoy the Vegas experience and workers feel safe. New stickers dot the lobby's marble floors to help guests keep six feet apart, and Bellagio-branded plexiglass panels line the front desk.

FLYNN: So you're noticing every other table here has these plexiglass barriers up - right? - sort of look like these private booths. And tables that would've normally had six chairs - you only have three chairs.

FUCHS: Flynn says the casino is limited to 50% capacity, so every other table and slot machine is closed down. He says that all employees and guests will have their temperatures checked upon arrival and that any worker with a fever or a symptom of COVID-19 will be sent home and receive what he described as appropriate compensation. When it comes to demands for more transparency, he says employees and guests will see the new measures in effect as soon as they arrive. And he points out that MGM has recently entered into a partnership to make testing widely available.

FLYNN: The health and safety of our community and the health and safety of our business are completely interconnected.

FUCHS: Enforcement will come from the gaming control board, the company's internal compliance team and local government officials, like Clark County Commissioner Marilyn Kirkpatrick.

MARILYN KIRKPATRICK: This is much deeper than the Great Recession because we've had no revenue coming in.

FUCHS: Clark County itself has seen a $1.1 billion loss in revenue, and the Las Vegas metro area now boasts one of the highest unemployment rates in the nation.

KIRKPATRICK: However, public health comes first, and I feel like we're in a good spot with public health today.

FUCHS: Kirkpatrick says case numbers and hospitalizations have been in decline for the past month, and testing capacity has increased to 10,000 per day. But union leaders like Geoconda Arguello-Kline still say officials like Kirkpatrick have to do more to ensure that returning to work is a hundred percent safe for employees.

GEOCONDA ARGUELLO-KLINE: She represent the strip, and she had to protect the workers. She no had to see only profits right now. She have to see peoples' life.

FUCHS: Arguello-Kline says the life of a single employee is worth more than a roll of the dice. Even with a complete shutdown, 15 culinary union workers and their family members have died from COVID-19.

For NPR News, I'm David Fuchs in Las Vegas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.