Unions, Harrah's in talks

Harrah's Entertainment has been having meetings with an electricians union since July over concerns about the gaming company using maintenance engineers to remodel hotels in Las Vegas, executive Jan Jones confirmed Friday.

But Jones denied the talks were mainly about work on the Ipanema tower at the Rio, which is being investigated by Clark County officials to ascertain the extent to which suites on 17 floors were remodeled several years ago without proper permits or safety inspections. The latest talk took place Friday, she confirmed.

"We're just meeting with the unions. We believe in having the most positive relationship with the building trades," said Jones, who is senior vice president of communications and government relations.

She confirmed that Harrah's has used labor from Local 501 of Operating Engineers to help remodel the Rio, as well as Harrah's Las Vegas and the Flamingo.

Operating engineers normally maintain and repair the various systems that keep a building in good working order. Such an engineer often has a broader knowledge of equipment than a member of a specialized trade union.

Harrah's "experience has been positive working with well-trained union labor," said Jones, a former mayor of Las Vegas.

Yet, she continued, the company has met to "assuage concerns" by Local 357 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. Specialized unions each "take pride" in a narrow work focus, Jones said.

Since midday Friday, two floors of guest rooms in the Ipanema tower -- the hotel's original lodgings -- have stood vacant, by order of the county Development Services' building division. Affected guests, including high rollers who had been staying in enlarged suites on the 19th floor, were relocated to other rooms Friday.

Rooms in the floor below were also shut down because they share holes drilled through concrete slab so piping and wiring can pass from one floor to another. By opening walls and flooring, investigators have found some holes were not correctly sealed to prevent, in the case of fire, smoke or gases from traveling between floors, according to county notices.

The rooms cannot reopen until the owner files plans, gets them approved, fixes any deficiencies, and has the floors undergo inspections.

Fred Frazzetta, a member of Local 501, took his concerns about the Rio in July to the Review-Journal, which spent two months interviewing former temporary workers on the remodel, studying Rio building plans and discussing its findings with construction consultants, the county and Harrah's. In response, the county in late September reopened its closed Rio investigation.

Frazzetta worked through Local 501 as a temporary electrician on the Rio remodel in 2005, and then became a full-time maintenance employee at Harrah's Las Vegas. He tried for more than a year on his own, using corporate and county channels, to have authorities check out his belated concerns that the Ipanema tower remodel took place without permits or inspections.

The remodel was finished in early 2006, but Frazzetta, who by then had moved to Harrah's on the Strip, didn't realize infractions may have taken place at the Rio until he observed another remodel taking place without permits at the Strip property in summer 2006.

His phone calls triggered a surprise OSHA inspection of Harrah's Las Vegas that summer, which resulted in the levy of fines for exposing in-house remodel workers to asbestos. It also led Harrah's to acquire a remodel permit for work that was already under way.

As a result of Frazzetta's activism, which he did not hide from his bosses, he was demoted for a time from his regular assignment to a job repairing maids' vacuum cleaners in a small space under the direct eye of Harrah's supervisors, he told the newspaper.

"The instructions were, I was not to leave except to go to the bathroom and take lunch. Basically, you would have thought I had some skin disease," he said.

In August last year, the electrician filed a complaint with the county's building division alleging there were no permits or inspections processed for the Rio remodel. It took the county six months to send out an inspector. The inspector closed the case on the day of his Feb. 16 inspection.

"The hotel rooms are a standard room from the fourth thru eighteenth floor with the ... floor being super suites per the original approved plans," inspector Rick Maddox wrote in his four-paragraph Feb. 16 report. Interviewed workers told the newspaper they helped create enlarged suites on the 19th floor during the remodel. But in county records, the Review-Journal found only plans calling for standard rooms on the 19th floor; neither the county nor Harrah's has produced a plan that indicates otherwise.

Frazzetta was terminated from Harrah's Las Vegas in June, when a guard stopped him from leaving the premises after his work shift, carrying company property. In his possession were about $15 worth of fluorescent bulbs and a safety report on Caesars Palace, another Harrah's Entertainment property. He claims he had forgotten to obtain a "backdoor pass" to borrow the lights overnight, so that he could demonstrate two different bulb types in a friend's kitchen. A higher-ranking maintenance employee gave him the report, he said.

"I have zero comment" on the Rio project or Frazzetta's account, Ron Cozart, the business agent in Las Vegas for Local 501, said Saturday. "I just don't have anything to say until I get to the bottom of this."

A former local patron of the Rio phoned the Review-Journal last week to explain he had noticed workmanship problems while occasionally staying weekends in the Ipanema tower at the hotel. The man said he and his wife had switched their loyalty to other local casinos.

"I voiced my opinion. I stopped staying at the Rio," said the retiree who declined to be identified in print for privacy reasons.

"We had flooding in the room. We had electrical shorts in the jacuzzi (motor). There was water underneath" the jacuzzi, the man claimed. "They moved us continually" from their assigned room to another. Sometimes, he said, they were moved from the Ipanema tower to the Masquerade, a newer guest tower at the Rio.

Contact reporter Joan Whitely at jwhitely@reviewjournal.com or (702) 383-0268.