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Culinary union calls for casinos to pay workers during shutdown

Updated April 9, 2020 - 6:03 pm

UNITE HERE culinary union is urging casinos to pay their workers throughout the nationwide casino shutdown.

In a Thursday morning videoconference, UNITE HERE International President D. Taylor said that states should insist the companies pay their workers throughout the closures.

“The industry, obviously, is a very profitable industry,” he said. “We don’t understand their behavior.”

As of March 25, all U.S. commercial casinos had temporarily shut their doors, according to the American Gaming Association.

Those closures are already impacting employees; 6.6 million people in the country sought jobless benefits last week.

A March report from the Nevada Resort Association found a 30- to 90-day shutdown could result in 158,000 total job losses in Nevada’s tourism industry alone.

‘Not stepping up’

Taylor said while casinos stepped up and offered pay and benefits for workers during previous disasters such as hurricanes Katrina and Sandy as well as 9/11, he doesn’t believe they’ve taken a similar approach during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The actions of the casinos during the shutdown have been mixed. Some, such as Boyd Gaming Corp. and The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas, have announced furloughs. Others, like Wynn Resorts Ltd. and Station Casinos, have extended pay and benefits for their members in recent days.

“We’ve chosen to invest in our culture during this crisis, and we believe we will emerge stronger because of it,” said Wynn CEO Matt Maddox.

Many gaming companies are burning millions of dollars a day during the shutdown, but Taylor said many are also sitting on billions of dollars in cash that could be used to pay workers.

“We don’t understand why they’re not stepping up now, particularly when they have the benefit of having some government loans that would help them retain the workers and retain the benefits,” he said.

While the $2 trillion relief package allows Nevada casinos to tap into roughly $450 billion in government loans designed to protect workers from layoffs and keep large companies solvent, some casino operators — such as MGM Resorts International — have said they don’t expect to use any federal loans.

According to the local culinary union, Culinary Local 226, website, members work at MGM, Caesars Entertainment Corp., Wynn and Boyd casinos, among others. Workers at Sands’ Venetian and Palazzo are nonunion, but there are union members working at the Sands Expo and Convention Center.

Sands has said it would pay workers during the shutdown. MGM announced furloughs last month and has agreed to award part-time and full-time furloughed employees two weeks of pay from the start of the closures. It has also started an emergency grant fund and partnered with large companies such as Amazon and Walmart to provide temporary employment for MGM employees affected by the closures.

“Companies have the opportunity to take very big loans and retain their workers, and they haven’t taken advantage of that,” Taylor said. “A lot of these aren’t cash-poor, that’s not the problem. They just don’t have the will to do this.”

A Thursday statement from MGM said its decisions during the shutdown were made “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.”

Unemployment filing concerns

A Tuesday note from J.P. Morgan analyst Joseph Greff showed that some of these companies believe unemployment insurance benefits and money from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act should act as an appropriate income substitute during the shutdowns.

Because MGM employees are set to receive benefits through June and qualify for money through the CARES Act, Greff wrote that “most employees should be in fairly good shape (wages/salary-wise) through the end of July.”

The Thursday statement from MGM added that the company is grateful the federal government passed the CARES Act to provide assistance for impacted workers “because we all know that history is yet to be written on this pandemic and the timeline for economic recovery could be terms of years and not months.”

But Taylor doesn’t think union members should have to navigate an unemployment system that is facing record levels of claim volumes.

“People should not have to try to navigate an unemployment system that is swamped,” he said. “The industry’s done well, and we think they should step up and pay people through this closing.”

Debra Jeffries, a union member who’s worked at one of the major Strip properties for more than 40 years, said workers are struggling as they wait for checks from the stimulus bill to arrive.

“We are devastated, both emotionally and financially,” she said.

Culinary Workers Union Local 226 in Las Vegas has about 60,000 members. Secretary-treasurer Geoconda Argüello-Kline said many workers feel abandoned by the gaming companies.

“They’re not only dealing with their fears (of the virus),” she said. “They’re dealing with how they’re going to take care of their families.”

Moving forward, Taylor said casinos’ actions today will play a big role in future contract negotiations.

“You’re always judged by your deeds, not your words,” he said.

When asked for comment, Boyd spokesman David Strow referred to a Wednesday statement in which President and CEO Keith Smith said “implementing furloughs was a last resort for us, but a necessary step to protect our Company. … As a result of these difficult but necessary actions, we are confident Boyd Gaming will have sufficient liquidity and resources to sustain itself until we are able to re-open for business. ”

Sands CEO and Chairman Sheldon Adelson wrote in a recent opinion piece that the company hopes to pay its nearly 10,000 employees — including tips — until the properties reopen because “it’s not only the right thing to do — it’s good business.”

“Our job as business leaders is now as simple as it is challenging,” he added. “It is to maximize the number of employees and their families that we can help — and help them for as long as possible.”

Spokespeople for Caesars did not immediately return requests for comment. A representative for Station Casinos declined to comment.

The Review-Journal is owned by the family of Las Vegas Sands Corp. Chairman and CEO Sheldon Adelson. Las Vegas Sands Corp. operates The Venetian, Palazzo and Sands Expo and Convention Center.

Contact Bailey Schulz at bschulz@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0233. Follow @bailey_schulz on Twitter.

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