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Thousands of laid-off casino workers asking ‘What now?’

Updated September 22, 2020 - 8:08 am

When casinos were ordered to shut down in mid-March, thousands of casino workers across Nevada were called off work.

Many still have yet to return.

Companies said they have tried to bring back as many employees as possible, but slow foot traffic has prompted mass layoffs.

The state’s leisure and hospitality sector — which made up a quarter of Nevada’s total labor market in January — has been hit hardest by the pandemic, according to data from the Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation. The total number of workers in the industry was down 16 percent in August compared with the same time last year.

While some laid-off employees have been able to pick up other jobs, many are still struggling to find work and make ends meet.

Jeffrey Gove

This isn’t the first time an economic downfall has upended Jeffrey Gove’s life.

In 2010, after the height of the Great Recession, Gove was let go from his job at Planet Hollywood Resort and moved to work in IT at an Oklahoma tribal casino. He moved back to his hometown of Las Vegas in January 2019 to work at Boyd Gaming Corp. as an IT product manager.

In May, he was stripped of his job once again, after spending a month on furlough.

“Makes me wonder why I moved back,” Gove said. “Here I am, just over a year back … (and) I was getting kicked out the door.”

Four months after being laid off, Gove is still looking for work. He’s tried to find jobs both within Las Vegas and out of state and is open to lower-level jobs with as much as a 50 percent pay cut — anything to make more than the $469 a week he gets through unemployment insurance benefits.

“There are quite a few (jobs) out there, especially after I lowered my expectations, but there are 80 people applying for that same job,” Gove said. “I’m 56. They want someone in their 30s. So I’m fighting that battle.”

Gove and his family barely get by on his unemployment insurance. His wife, Lori Gove, has been bound to a wheelchair since a car accident in 2006 and does not receive disability benefits, leaving Gove’s unemployment insurance as the couple’s sole source of income.

Bills were no problem before, when Gove would make more than four times what he receives on unemployment. Now, he’s forced to dip into his savings and 401(k).

Gove’s biggest priority is finding a job that offers medical insurance. Without work, even plans through the Affordable Care Act are too expensive, leaving the couple without coverage for the past five months.

“I’m looking (for jobs) like crazy,” he said. “I’ve got to find something. I’ve got a little savings, I took some money out of the 401(k), but that’s just getting us by.”

Keith Brooks  

It took weeks for Keith Brooks to find a new job after he was laid off from the Golden Nugget in Laughlin in July.

Starting next month, the former floor supervisor plans to live and work in Kingman, Arizona.

He said he saw the layoff coming, but what he didn’t expect were the three weeks of trying to convince the state that he still needed to receive unemployment insurance benefits.

He had received a final paycheck with his vacation hours from the company after being let go, which caused a slew of problems with his unemployment insurance claim.

“I had to fax in a paystub, email it in and write 12 letters,” Brooks said. “I didn’t have a problem until the vacation check came in.”

When the payments did come in, Brooks was taking in about half of what he had been making at the Golden Nugget. He said the money has been just enough to cover his bills and basic expenses.

Now, having finally found a job after weeks of searching, Brooks is looking to scrape together enough money to afford the move to Arizona, where he will teach GED classes to prisoners. He estimates he will need $1,300 to $1,400 for the security deposit and initial payments on his new apartment.

“It’s sad that I have to move to find another job, but these times are tough,” he said. “I’m just glad I have another job.”

He’s frustrated with the governor and the state for being the last to file for the federal Lost Wages Assistance program, which provides funding for states to cover an additional $300 a week in unemployment benefits for three to six weeks, retroactive to Aug. 1. The Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation this month said it could take up to six weeks before eligible claimants see payments after the state receives approval, which came Friday.

Those payments would go a long way for Brooks. If he can’t collect the money in time, he’ll have to spend three hours commuting each day.

Melissa Valdez

Melissa Valdez’s favorite part about working for MGM Resorts International was the people.

The former human resources learning and development partner had been working for the company since 2005 and was one of roughly 18,000 to learn last month that she would no longer be employed at the company.

She and her family are in a good spot financially. Her husband still has his job, and Valdez picked up a second side gig while she was on furlough. She considers the timing of the layoffs “a blessing in disguise,” since she’s now able to spend more time with her five kids.

She plans to continue the side gigs for at least the next nine months, as she helps her kids with distance learning and waits for the pandemic to blow over.

“It’s a decision I made because there’s so much uncertainty right now,” she said. “Whether the kids will be in school, how will the pandemic affect our city, will the numbers rise or fall. I don’t want to be in a position (now) where I take a role at another big company.”

Despite the layoff, Valdez said she has nothing bad to say about the company and would like to return, if asked.

“My heart just broke thinking about all of these people who are no longer with the company. I just pray that they can find something, or be able to stay afloat and manage their families and financially be OK,” she said. “My thoughts go out to my fellow 18,000.”

Sharon Beza

Sharon Beza worked as a cocktail waitress nearly 37 years at the casino located off Boulder Highway and East Harmon Avenue, starting at the Nevada Palace and then transferring to the Eastside Cannery after it opened at the same location in 2008.

That all ended with a letter she received in the mail July 17.

It was an “extreme shock” to Beza, who claims she didn’t get a letter from Boyd Gaming Corp. warning her of the impending layoff. She likened it to a divorce and found it hard to eat or sleep the following days.

The 59-year-old had hoped to make it to 40 years as a cocktail waitress before retiring.

“(I) worked there from the bottom up,” she said. “Now, I need to go back in the workplace at (nearly) 60 years old. It’s hard … all I know is cocktails and that business.”

Her greatest fear is running out of savings. Her only source of income at the moment is roughly $291 in weekly unemployment insurance benefits — not nearly enough to cover the car payments, utility bills, groceries and other expenses that help support her teenage son and mother.

Beza is still looking for work but said it’s been difficult, despite her taking a “beggars can’t be choosers” approach. She hasn’t received callbacks after interviews with a grocery store and a convenience store and thinks her age might play a role.

She’s considering a job with a convenience store, but her children have advised against it because it’s located in a high-crime part of town and has been robbed in the past.

“We just don’t know what to do. There aren’t jobs out there. … I can’t live life on minimum wage,” she said. “It just seems hopeless.”

Arnold van Lakerveld

Arnold van Lakervled, a former food and beverage manager at Aria and Vdara, had been working for MGM Resorts for nearly four years.

Then he got a phone call Aug. 28 notifying him that he would be removed from furlough status.

“I was prepared for it,” he said.

Even so, he said, the news was hard to swallow.

“You still have bills to pay. Unemployment isn’t forever,” he said. “What’s next, I don’t know.”

He said he and his wife are doing OK financially, since she still has her job. He’s been looking for work the past couple of months but said it’s been a struggle to find something with so many people unemployed in Southern Nevada.

Finding another job in food and beverage is “hard right now,” so van Lakerveld has turned to other industries, namely grocery stores and warehouses.

“Almost anything,” he said.

He hopes he’s eventually called back with MGM Resorts but doesn’t plan to wait on a job opening up within the company.

“I’m being realistic. It’s going to take awhile before things are back to normal,” he said.

Contact Bailey Schulz at bschulz@reviewjournal.com. Follow @bailey_schulz on Twitter.

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