Updated July 10, 2020 - 5:54 pm
Aileen Rotzin has a deadly secret — one she doesn’t want to keep.
The M Resort cage cashier tested positive for COVID-19 on July 4, one month after she first returned to her job at the Henderson casino.
Despite working closely with coworkers while she had symptoms, Rotzin claims the company’s human resources department told her to keep her test results private because it was considered “confidential information.”
“It’s just human decency, with this COVID-19, that they let other people know (when employees test positive),” she said.
The M Resort and casino operators across Southern Nevada have declined to share how many employees have tested positive for COVID-19. Businesses aren’t required to share this information, but hotel-casino workers across the Las Vegas Valley say they would feel safer if they knew what sort of environment they were being asked to work in.
Cases across the valley
Instead of keeping mum, Rotzin decided to contact nearly a dozen coworkers to encourage them to take a COVID-19 test.
Spokesman Jeff Morris said the M Resort initiates contact tracing immediately after discovering a positive case to determine whether there’s been possible exposure to other employees and guests, and those who are at risk are notified. He added that the company tells staff that their COVID-19 test results will remain confidential, but “they do not have an obligation” to keep their positive test private.
Rotzin is unsure if other employees have tested positive — she said she has received no official notices from the company regarding infected workers.
“We work very close together; the cage is really small,” she said. “I’m worried about them.”
She added that she has yet to receive a contact tracing call from the Southern Nevada Health Department, which was reported to be understaffed in May.
Employees at other casinos have voiced similar complaints regarding a lack of transparency.
On June 29, the Review-Journal reported that multiple employees have personally confirmed at least 15 workers have tested positive for COVID-19 at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas.
That number has since gone up, according to employees.
The company declined to say how many of its employees have tested positive, but told the Review-Journal it immediately reports any positive cases to the health district, and follows health and safety protocols that include contact tracing and testing, quarantining, and deep cleaning and sanitization.
One worker at the Strip casino told the Review-Journal they have personally confirmed at least 38 dealers have tested positive at the property. Others said they could confirm at least 30 at that department, and employees at other departments say they are also seeing positive cases.
One dealer who tested positive told the Review-Journal they reached out to coworkers to notify them, afraid that the company wouldn’t send out a notification.
“People are scared,” one worker said.
“It’s just frustrating,” another said. “It for sure feels like they’re trying to hide it. There’s been no transparency. It just feels horrible.”
The Cosmopolitan said it has established a “comprehensive and expansive” COVID-19 communications plan that includes contact-tracing correspondence on potential exposure, confirmed exposure, mandatory and company-paid testing, paid quarantine leave and extensive sanitization protocols.
“All employees are thoroughly alerted if/when they have come into confirmed or potential contact with a COVID-19 case, in line with the contact tracing regulations set forth by the Southern Nevada Health District,” the company said.
But a number of workers say they don’t believe the company is doing enough to keep them safe.
Two said they have been allowed to enter the property without a temperature check, despite the company’s published and publicly available health and safety protocols saying all coworkers are “required to undergo a non-invasive temperature screening before beginning their work shift and entering the resort.”
One housekeeping employee said many have not had time to receive proper, hands-on training on the new protocols.
The housekeeping worker confirmed at least 10 housekeeping staff members have tested positive but said there are rumors of more.
“As employees, we want to know (when someone tests positive so we can) get tested,” the employee said. “We can’t bring this to our families, and we’re dealing with hundreds of people a day.”
Another Cosmopolitan employee said the property is not enforcing state protocols, which require masks to be worn by patrons and guests in casinos unless eating or drinking.
The Cosmopolitan said that its health and safety protocols are “100% compliant with all federal, state and local requirements.”
Those protocols require employees to go through a temperature screening with an onsite COVID-19 surveillance and check-point team before starting a shift.
“The safety and security of our employees and guests is our top priority, and any employee that is not in compliance with our Health and Sanitization Guidelines, including appropriate resort access and screening protocols, is at risk of disciplinary measures, including termination,” the company said.
It also said every employee is required to complete several online COVID-19 education sessions.
Two Caesars Entertainment Corp. employees, who were granted anonymity to protect their jobs, say the company has yet to issue any notices widely among staff about positive cases.
So far, just four cases have been made public by Caesars: two at the Flamingo, one at The Linq Hotel, and one at Caesars Palace. The latter resulted in the June 24 death of Adolfo Fernandez, a 51-year-old utility porter.
One worker said neither the death of the employee nor the rate of positive cases among staff was brought up when they received a call to return to work.
“It seems like as far as (the company is) concerned, the less people know and find out about any cases and deaths, the better off they are,” said the employee, who found out about Fernandez’s death on Twitter. “I definitely think any casino should inform (workers about how many employees have tested positive).”
Caesars spokesman Richard Broome said when the company learns than an employee has tested positive, some workers — but not all — are notified.
The company uses surveillance technology and “investigative resources” to determine who has been in close proximity to an infected person. Workers who meet the criteria are informed and directed to self-isolate, and they can return after submitting a negative COVID-19 test result.
Other employees are informed “only if their work is affected,” such as with an altered shift or temporary venue closure, Broome said. The company does not disclose which employees have tested positive or are self-isolating.
Broome declined to say how many employees have tested positive since reopening or whether it brings up positive cases when it calls employees back to work.
Another Caesars employee said rising cases among Las Vegas casino workers and a lack of transparency are making them consider quitting the job.
“It’s almost like you shouldn’t talk about it,” the employee said. “I think there should be more transparency.”
Sixto Zermeno, a bellman at the Signature at MGM Grand, wishes there was more communication from MGM Resorts International.
After testing positive for COVID-19 on June 11, Zermeno said he’s symptom-free and back at work. While he wasn’t able to confirm if any coworkers have tested positive for COVID-19, he said there have been rumors among staff that the company hasn’t addressed.
“In my opinion, there’s not enough transparency,” he said. “Everyone is nervous.”
Spokesman Brian Ahern said when an MGM employee tests positive, the company follows incident response protocols and works to identify, notify, and require testing for employees who have had close contact with the infected individual. Positive cases are reported to public health officials, and the company assists with their contact tracing efforts as well.
“Out of respect for the privacy of individual employees, we will confirm a case only when there is an impact on our operations or the public health,” Ahern said.
MGM employees are also offered free testing, and they are required to get tested if they exhibit symptoms. Employees who test positive are given two weeks of paid time off.
One security worker at a Station Casinos property said there are rumors of positive COVID-19 cases among staff, but nothing has been confirmed by management.
“It’s all word of mouth,” the employee said, adding it doesn’t feel good being in this position.
Station Casinos declined to comment.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says companies should inform fellow employees about any possible exposure to an infected employee while maintaining confidentiality required by the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Ellen Bronchetti, a partner at international law firm McDermott Will & Emery with a focus on employment and labor issues, said employers should keep these notifications vague, something along the lines of: “We are aware that there has been exposure. We have determined that you may have been in close contact with this person.”
Brendan Bussmann, director of government affairs for Las Vegas-based Global Market Advisors, said deciding how much to share when it comes to infected employees is complicated.
“I understand employees’ desire to know if other employees test positive, but there are federal laws that come into play, not only for the protection of the employee but the protection of the company,” he said.
He said companies need to be careful in how they handle employee privacy when they notify staff about positive cases. If the company tells a smaller department that a worker has tested positive and only one worker is out sick, Bussmann said, it’s going to be clear who has been infected.
Additionally, all at-risk employees who were in close contact with an infected worker should be alerted through contact tracing.
None of the companies shared why they chose not to disclose the number of infected employees. Greg Chase, founder and CEO of Las Vegas-based Experience Strategy Associates, said casino operators could be concerned that going public with the number of positive cases could turn away visitors.
“However, I have always believed in a level of transparency actually helps build brand credibility for an organization,” he said. “Both employees and customers will be grateful of any information that can be shared around this topic, as it truly demonstrates that the organization at its core cares about the health and well-being of its employees and customers.”
Josh Swissman, founding partner of The Strategy Organization in Las Vegas, said transparency on positive cases “will win the hearts and minds of both team members and guests in the long run. … Safe team members are happy team members, and happy team members make guests feel safe and happy, too. That is exactly what our city needs right now.”
‘Left in the dark’
Rotzin’s symptoms started with a cough. Then a sore throat — which she initially attributed to having to speak louder behind a mask while at work. Maybe a cold, she thought.
After all, the 59-year-old had taken nearly every precaution against the virus: Only ordering groceries online. Disinfecting her home and car constantly. Changing her clothes as soon as she returned home from work.
But when her symptoms persisted, Rotzin left her shift at the M Resort early on June 27. She said human resources told her to get tested and self-isolate as she awaited her results.
On July 4, she learned she had tested positive for COVID-19.
“I was panicking when I received the positive test result,” she said. “It can turn around and kill you.”
Rotzin said she’s doing better now, although she has a consistent dry cough and still finds it hard to breath. At its worst, she said, the virus made it hard to walk from her bedroom to the kitchen without feeling out of breath.
She said nobody deserves to go through that experience, including her coworkers, who she feels are more at risk not knowing about her illness.
“I’m protective of my health. I’d rather know than be left in the dark. To me, it’s an unsafe working condition,” she said. “I would like to know (so I can) make my own decision to continue to work or not. I don’t want to put myself at risk in a dangerous working environment.”
Rotzin has not put in notice but said she does not plan to return to work at the M Resort once she recovers.
Contact Bailey Schulz at email@example.com or 702-383-0233. Follow @bailey_schulz on Twitter.