Photography by Joe Buglewicz
Tim Baer has no idea when he’ll return to work ― or whether he can keep his family safe and healthy when he does.
Baer tends bar at Hell’s Kitchen, celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay’s previously busy outpost inside Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. Like much of the gambling mecca’s service workforce, Baer was laid off from his job in mid-March when casinos, restaurants and nightclubs went dark due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Even though the Strip will begin a gradual reopening starting on Thursday, workers like Baer face nothing but uncertainty. While some casinos and restaurants will have customers for the first time in more than two months, hotels will be limiting the number of guests, crowds around craps tables won’t be allowed, and normally teeming nightclubs will remain shuttered as a public health precaution.
Baer, a bartender for 30 years, doesn’t know yet when he’ll be called back. Thinking ahead to that moment, he wonders how he will perform such a fast-paced job in a hot facemask all shift long. He worries about contracting the virus and transmitting it to his wife or son, both of whom have concerning medical histories. But first and foremost, he worries about not getting that call.
“I lost a job I worked years for,” said Baer. “I don’t know what’s going to happen to me. I’m going to be struggling again. What kind of work am I going to do until something opens up?”
Offering an overview, he added, “It’s not looking too bright for a lot of people here in Las Vegas.”
Vegas might be the starkest example of what the hospitality industry faces across the country: a delicate balancing act between bringing back jobs and revenue and keeping workers and customers safe from a virus that’s killed more than 100,000 Americans.
The city is well known for its reliable hospitality jobs that pay decent wages and provide a pathway to the middle class for many, including immigrant families. The powerful Culinary Union Local 226 and its sister union, Bartenders Local 165, represent workers on the Strip and downtown; together, the unions have 63,000 members.
But how long it will be before a significant number of those jobs return remains a big question mark. In April, the unemployment rate in town soared to 33%, twice as bad as during the Great Recession. A spokesperson for the culinary union said 98% of its members were laid off due to the virus.
It could be a long time before Vegas returns to something resembling normal. Its hospitality industry relies heavily on air travel. And most of the revenue at major resorts does not come from gambling itself ― it comes from hotel stays, meals and entertainment. Until the public is again comfortable booking flights to Sin City, those businesses will continue to take a hit.
“That’s not to say you’re not going to see a strong crowd driving from Southern California,” said Barry Jonas, a gaming industry analyst at SunTrust Robinson Humphrey, the corporate and investment banking arm of SunTrust Banks. “But the business centered on getting in an airplane, going out to a group meeting, hosting a convention ― that’s going to be a tough sell.”
Jonas said he does see a certain pent-up demand, with people willing to go out and spend money under new social-distancing measures. “I just don’t know how that translates to a destination-oriented market,” he added.
Laid-off workers tell HuffPost they’ve waited as long as two months to start receiving unemployment benefits, as Nevada, like many other states, was poorly prepared for a flood of jobless claims. Frustrated residents have spent hours on the phone trying to get claims processed.
“The unemployment was so massive,” said Yolanda Scott, a food server at Treasure Island who was laid off on March 17 but didn’t get her benefits until mid-May. “The lines were just constantly busy. You had to call every day. It was like going to work.”
Many workers may remain on the unemployment rolls for months until tourism picks up.
At a lot of workplaces, union contracts require that callbacks be based upon seniority. Baer has six years at his work level, and he knows other bartenders at Hell’s Kitchen with more time under their belts. But he’s grateful to have a union when his job prospects are so uncertain.
“The union is playing hardball for worker protections,” he said.
Union leaders have been pressuring hotels and casinos for more transparency about their reopening plans and the protections they’ll have in place for employees. They have also called on Gov. Steve Sisolak (D) and the Gaming Control Board ― the governing body for the industry in Nevada ― to adopt health guidelines that apply to every property, rather than leave it to individual operators to decide which precautions they’ll take.
“The idea that each gaming company can come up with their own plans, keep those plans secret, and hope that one bad employer doesn’t harm workers and the entire industry is a potential disaster,” the culinary union said in a statement.
Nery Martinez, a bartender at Caesars Palace, said he wants to see all workers in the unionized workplace tested for coronavirus before returning to work. His union’s health fund has joined a partnership with the University Medical Center and certain resorts to provide free testing at the city’s convention center as reopenings begin.
But testing is not mandatory, and different operators seem to be taking different approaches. Caesars, for instance, will be performing a health screening to determine which workers should get tested, and taking employees’ temperature before shifts. Martinez said that’s not enough.
“Some people had the virus and they don’t have symptoms,” he said. “For me, the safer way is everyone who works should be tested.”
Martinez, who’s worked at Caesars for five years, has seen videos of crowded bars and customers invading workers’ personal space during the pandemic. He wants both his colleagues and his patrons to have to follow strict rules that are clearly posted. His wife works in a casino kitchen, and he worries for her health, too, along with that of their two children.
“It’s really hard to trust everyone in the workplace,” he said. ”The employer has to offer really clear transparency on the guidelines. They need to make that public, so everybody can see it. We want to trust those guidelines. I want to see all those things everywhere.”
But, as with Baer, Martinez’s first concern is getting back to work. If only half of his workplace is called back, he isn’t confident he would be among them. He could apply for work at other properties, but he suspects there will be a waiting list just about anywhere.
“If you don’t have the job you had before, it’s going be so hard to find another one,” he said.
Even if Vegas bounces back, the coronavirus disruption could still bring about long-term changes to the city’s hospitality jobs.
Jonas, the analyst, assumes at least some big employers will use the retrenchment as an opportunity to streamline operations and reduce labor costs. That could mean leaning even more on technology at the expense of workers, like using touchpads for hotel check-ins and drink orders, which were already becoming a common sight on the Strip.
The culinary union has tried to get out ahead of such shifts toward automation. In its last round of contracts with the major casinos and hotels, the union fought for job-training provisions to help members whose positions might be affected by new technologies. Ruben Garcia, a labor law professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said changes in the pandemic’s wake may test the effectiveness of those provisions.
“The rationale [for employers] before was: ‘We need to become more efficient and provide a better guest experience,’” Garcia said. “That will now be supplemented with a public health rationale: ′We need to have fewer people and fewer touchpoints.′ It’s something the union will have to deal with.”
But for now, the concern is having a job to come back to.
Baer said he is eager to be mixing drinks again. Even with the weekly unemployment supplement of $600 from the federal government, his income has fallen below what he would typically earn during a busy week at the bar. That extra federal aid is set to expire at the end of July. At that point, the maximum Nevadans would be able to collect per week would fall back to $469.
Baer said no one wants to go back to work before it feels safe, but some workers will get desperate as time goes on. And the question lingers ― when will anything close to a vibrant Vegas economy return?
“We’ve got some of the best customer service and restaurants in the world,” he said. “Are people even going to come back here? How long will it be?”