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Workers flock to unemployment office after virus leads to layoffs

Updated March 16, 2020 - 5:41 pm

The line at the unemployment office on West Charleston Boulevard stretched out the front door Monday morning, filled with workers who had recently suffered from layoffs spurred by the COVID-19 outbreak.

Their employment backgrounds were mixed. One said he worked in the convention industry, another with nightclubs. A handful said they had been working for MGM Resorts International properties, which announced layoffs Friday.

One woman had two kids in tow, with no classes to send them to. Others wore face masks or gloves to protect themselves from the virus.

But many had one thing in common: concern over how they could afford their monthly bills at a time when it seems like no business is hiring. As of Monday, at least three Strip casino operators had announced layoffs due to low room demand from the virus outbreak. Others had announced plans to shut down operations indefinitely.

“It’s terrible. … There are thousands of people without jobs now,” said one Mandalay Bay employee in line at the One-Stop Career Center. The worker was granted anonymity to protect her ability to return to work.

“I still have to call my mortgage company,” she said. “I don’t know if they’re going to help us.”

Concern for ‘average Joe’

A growing number of casino workers have faced layoffs in recent days as travel demand and Strip occupancy rates dropped.

MGM told staff Friday it would begin furloughs and layoffs in response to the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting collapse of tourism. Documentation obtained by the Review-Journal on Sunday night shows Caesars Entertainment Corp. has begun laying off employees, and Sahara Las Vegas confirmed Monday that it had also started layoffs.

Other companies, including Wynn Resorts Ltd. and MGM, announced plans to temporarily shut down Las Vegas properties entirely this week.

One New York-New York employee in line at the unemployment office learned about the MGM shutdown from the news.

“I think it’s the right thing to do,” said the worker, who was granted anonymity to protect her ability to return to work. But “I really don’t know (what to do next). I’m just here to see what I can do here and from here figure it out.”

The Mandalay Bay employee said she has been working in casinos since she was a teenager and this was her first time filing for unemployment.

She said action from local utilities like NV Energy, Southwest Gas and the Las Vegas Valley Water District has been reassuring. All three companies have said they will work with customers who cannot make payments.

While she has some money saved, she worries the economic impact from the virus will last multiple months.

Sahara maintenance worker Hector Padilla said he believes the layoffs are unfair for employees, especially after many casino operators reported record profits in recent years.

“The average Joe is going to have to worry about making that last mortgage payment or buying food for our kids,” he said. “Some people may have reserves, but other people, most people, do not.”

The landlords ‘don’t care’

A Planet Hollywood employee, who was granted anonymity to have the ability to return to work, said the biggest concern at the moment is paying bills, including rent.

The worker has already taken action to cut back expenses — cooking at home more, for example — but it may not be enough.

“I don’t know how I’m going to pay my bills now,” the worker said. “The mortgage companies, the landlords, they don’t care. They want their money. … If I don’t get paid, I’m going to get kicked out.”

Wendi Wilson, a brand ambassador in the local convention industry, applied for unemployment last week after she was unable to find alternative work.

She worries about paying for basic needs now that tourism in Las Vegas has slowed considerably. There are car payments, rent and food for herself and her cat.

Last week, she said, she had about $30 left in her checking account.

“I keep trying to replace one job with a job and another job, and they keep falling out,” she said. “I’m not afraid to work. I can pick up anything. I’m trying. … I don’t know what I’m supposed to do.”

She said one of her biggest concerns at the moment is rent. She gets her last paycheck on March 20, but it’s still not enough to cover her rent, due March 15. Wilson was one of the nearly 9,200 people who have signed an online petition urging Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman and Gov. Steve Sisolak to put a moratorium on evictions and forgive rent for wage workers unable to make an income during the outbreak.

During a news conference Thursday, Sisolak said his office is exploring all the options it has to “protect our most vulnerable citizens,” including eviction moratoriums.

“I have been in constant contact with my colleagues across the country, governors that all had various plans going,” Sisolak said. “That is another one of the issues that we’re looking at moving forward.”

Culinary Union Local 226 also said it is working on a plan to help workers and their families that will address unemployment, utility protection and rent issues, among other things.

The petition was started by Sarah O’Connell, owner of lighting and production company Axislights Inc., after her company lost about $35,000 worth of business in three days as conventions across the country began to cancel plans.

“This is the worst thing in the history of our industry. … I realized this was going to be a massive economic impact,” said O’Connell, who is also executive director of Eat More Art Vegas, an online guide to the local theater and dance scene. “It’s affecting all the people behind the scenes at these conferences and events.”

So far, she said, she hasn’t received an official response from any public office.

“If you don’t have a roof over your head and you don’t have health insurance, how are you going to get back on your feet?” she said.

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

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