Covid-19: Las Vegas a 'ghost town', casino workers abandoned

Friday 10th April 2020

LAS VEGAS: Casino workers in Las Vegas voiced anger on Thursday at being abandoned by their billionaire employers as the gambling mecca becomes a "ghost town" due to Covid-19 coronavirus.

Tens of thousands employed on the city's world-famous Strip of glitzy hotels and high-stakes betting lost their jobs when Nevada shuttered all non-essential businesses in mid-March.

While a few casinos including Wynn and Encore continue to support workers, most offered only two weeks' "closing pay" or less, forcing staff to file for unemployment, union workers told a web conference.

"This is not going to sustain us - we need to feed our families, we need to put food on the table, we have bills mounting up," said Debra Jeffries, a cocktail waitress for four decades at a major Strip casino.

"Hearing how our community has crumbled as Vegas turned into a ghost town was devastating," she added.

Las Vegas receives more than 40 million visitors each year.

But US stay-at-home orders and foreign travel bans crippled tourism even before Las Vegas casinos closed, and hit at a time when workers were looking forward to greater earnings in peak season.

If all US casinos remain closed until mid-May, US$43.5 billion in economic activity - including nearby restaurants and bars - will be wiped out, according to the American Gaming Association.

But although casinos are eligible for federal aid during the coronavirus pandemic, many immediately laid off their staff, said Unite Here president D. Taylor.

In Las Vegas, casinos' reaction compared poorly with their responses to previous devastating events such as the 9/11 attacks in 2001, and the 2017 Mandalay Bay shooting, he said.

"(After) 9/11, when in one day 15,000 people got laid off in Las Vegas... the industry eventually stepped up," said Taylor.

"We don't understand their behavior," he added.

Geoconda Arguello-Kline, treasurer-secretary of the giant Las Vegas-based Culinary Union, called on major casino operators such as MGM Resorts and Caesars Entertainment to honor their "responsibility in this community."

"We feel the casino industry right now, they left their workers alone... it's a very painful situation," said Arguello-Kline.

"All these gaming companies, they know they are the heart of Las Vegas," she said.

MGM Resorts said in a statement to AFP its focus was to "ensure that we have the resources to not just reopen, but also to operate successfully, because the most impactful thing we can do for our employees in the long term is to bring them back to work."

The company is helping staff find temporary work elsewhere and has set up an emergency grant fund.

Wynn Resorts, which owns Wynn and Encore casinos, this month extended payroll for all employees including hourly and part-time staff through mid-May, adding tips based on averages for relevant workers.

"It is our shared responsibility to follow the direction of health and safety professionals to stay home, and limit social contact," said CEO Matt Maddox.

Caesars Entertainment did not immediately respond to an AFP request for comment. - AFP

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